Overconfidence never has been a problem for Marc Mariani.
Even after he made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, he never forgot the fact that he came into the NFL as a seventh-round draft pick from a college program, Montana, that does not traditionally serve as a launching pad to professional stardom.
At best, he never has felt as if he has had more than one foot in the door. This year, he has to worry about his leg too.
Mariani’s 2012 season ended before it ever really started when he sustained multiple and significant fractures to his left leg in the third preseason contest. Following surgery, the return man/wide receiver spent the entire campaign on injured reserve and embarked on a long, daunting rehabilitation that is not finished.
His participation in organized team activities (OTAs) the last three weeks has been a step in the right direction as he attempts to regain his form — and his roster spot.
“It’s really not too far different from this point in time of any year,” he said. “It’s OTAs and you’re battling for a spot. But definitely this year I feel like I’ve got something to prove again. Everyone knows what happens [when you’re injured]. Really, it doesn’t matter. That’s last year and I have to be ready to go this year and that’s the only way I’m going to stick around.”
He is not alone.
As the 2012 season progressed, Mariani found plenty of company in the training room and on IR. When all was said and done, 19 players were classified as something other than active because of health issues. Among them were four projected starters on the offensive line, three reserve defensive ends and a starting tight end.
Six of them are back with the Titans this spring. Each faces issues in terms of confidence and roster uncertainty.
“I think a lot of guys who finished the season hurt — and we have a long list of those guys — it’s all about getting their confidence back, feeling like ‘You know, I am healthy. Yeah I can produce. I can just react without thinking about my injury. Can I plant and go?’” coach Mike Munchak said.
“… This time of year is important to guys for a lot of different reasons, and for guys coming off injuries … it’s important to come off knowing that they are better, that they do feel good, that they can do whatever they want to do now.”
Middle linebacker Colin McCarthy was named a team captain last year but sustained a serious ankle injury in the opener against New England. He still was not fully healthy when he sustained a concussion. Ultimately, he played just seven games.
When he got back to action this spring, free agent Moise Fokou had been signed to compete for his job.
Similarly, safety Markelle Martin was a 2012 draft pick who missed the entire season with a knee injury. Veteran Robert Johnson spent the final three weeks on injured reserve with a foot injury.
This offseason the Titans signed two veteran safeties and drafted two more.
“Obviously, it’s a production business and you have to be out on the field to make plays,” McCarthy said. “Being on the sideline and being hurt you’re not able to do that. I realize that and until I change and fix that it’s going to be a concern.
“… Obviously, this is a process in OTAs and then minicamp and I’m glad I can participate in it, work with the guys and get back on the field.”
No one is happier than Mariani, though, who now has a rod in his tibia and a plate secured to his fibula with “12-14 screws and pins.”
He said he watched video of the play on which he was hurt, a particularly gruesome image in the vein of Joe Theisman’s infamous final NFL snap. Mariani was affected, but not deterred by the severity of what he saw.
“I think kind of the after-effect, when it’s kind of floppy and not really attached is what gets me the most,” he said. “It’s just crazy to think that was nine months ago. It’s definitely been a long nine months but, shoot, it’s been a massive learning experience. I’ve got a new perspective on things. I’m ready to go. I’m ready to hit the gas.”
He said he jumped back into team activities sooner than expected because the daily routine in the training room began to feel a little too monotonous, particularly during those months between the end of the regular season and the start of the offseason training program.
While he has had no significant setbacks, he has been reminded that he is not back to 100 percent either. He said the leg gets weak, particularly when he performs repeated lateral movements. He also believes, though, that the on-field work provides greater benefits than anything he would do in the training room because it allows him to do actual football-related activities.
“You see him out here and he’s doing everything that’s asked of him,” quarterback Jake Locker said. “He looks good. He’s running well and you can see him gaining confidence each week with that leg when he has to plant off it … and use it as his cut leg. You know he’s put in a lot of hard work and to see it work out for him on the field is awesome.”
Even Mariani admitted that there were times he was not sure he’d see the practice field again. Now he’s looking forward to the first moment in the preseason when he actually gets hit and taken to the ground.
“There’s always things that I’m doing for the first time again that I want to see how it responds, things that are kind of foreign,” he said. “That’s definitely one of them — putting the pads on and getting pushed around, hit around and being put in situations that you can’t really train for. I’m looking forward to that. I’m growing trust in it every day so I don’t need that yet but I’m definitely looking forward to getting the ball in my hands and taking that first hit.”
For him, it will be a significant step in a process that has had many small ones.
“In those long months when there’s only a couple other people in the training room and you’re doing all the little redundant stuff, and doing all the drill work you get frustrated and you get … I don’t know what the word is,” Mariani said. “You just aren’t quite sure if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
“Now when these guys reported back in April and I jumped right in it’s been very beneficial for me. Even though I’m going through a little bit of a roller coaster right now it’s all good. … It’s all a process. I believe that I’ll be back 100 percent, if not better. So that’s the way I’m approaching it.”
He sounds confident.