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Bears, take note: Quarterback Marcus Mariota has Titans' arrow pointing up

Marcus Mariota had graced the cover of Sports Illustrated four times before, so the attention was nothing new. But the fifth time was not like the others.

In the issue dated May 11, 2015, 11 days after the Titans picked the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback second overall in the NFL draft, his portrait symbolized everything about his entry into the NFL.

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Instead of an action shot of him dazzling at the University of Oregon, Mariota debuted a full Titans uniform wearing his familiar No. 8. For the first time in five cover photos, he was without a helmet. Nashville and the rest of America could see his smiling face.

The headline read: "You're on the clock, Marcus. Tennessee is buzzing — now for the franchise turnaround."

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A year and a half later, Mariota is living up to the immense hype and expectations. As the Titans have built around him with a fortified offensive line and rushing attack, he comes to Soldier Field on Sunday with a 100.3 passer rating this season. He has 16 touchdown passes in the red zone and no interceptions.

Coach Mike Mularkey, who pre-dated Mariota with the Titans as an assistant by one season, has gained a deep appreciation for what the 23-year-old dual-threat quarterback means to the franchise as it continues to climb from the bottom of the league.

Not only has Mularkey witnessed Mariota's impact, he also was on the Falcons staff when Matt Ryan was drafted in 2008, and he was a Steelers assistant in the 1990s when Kordell Stewart emerged as a dynamic difference-maker. He knows the value of a talented young quarterback to an organization.

"You have hope," he said. "You come in every day and you know you have a chance to win."

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Hope. What a feeling. It sure beats what preceded Mariota's arrival in Tennessee. Six straight seasons without a playoff berth had left the franchise stuck without an identity or direction.

Sound familiar, Chicago?

The optimism fueling the 5-6 Titans contrasts the despair engulfing the 2-8 Bears. Painfully, the difference has become customary this season as the Bears have matched up against teams building around young quarterbacks.

Two Sundays ago, they lost 36-10 to the Buccaneers and quarterback Jameis Winston, who was drafted one spot ahead of Mariota. In September, they lost to Eagles rookie Carson Wentz and Cowboys rookie Dak Prescott. Each of those teams enter the final quarter of the season with their playoff hopes still burning.

The Tribune's Dan Wiederer and Rich Campbell talk about Jay Cutler and the Bears' quarterback situation in this week's Halas Hall Pass.

A glimpse at what Bears need

The Bears, on the other hand, are expected to replace injured veteran Jay Cutler with unproven, unheralded journeyman Matt Barkley. Injuries to two other backups prompted the Bears to turn to Barkley, but, in reality, no one on their quarterback depth chart embodies the potential of a young franchise quarterback.

As the Bears head toward their third straight last-place finish in the NFC North, they remain without that stabilizing force and directional pillar. It's something they have in common with most of the other teams floundering with them at the bottom of the NFL.

Sunday's matchup, then, will provide the latest look at everything a young, talented quarterback might offer them. That is, if general manager Ryan Pace can find the right one.

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Frank Wycheck has experienced the dizziness of the Titans' quarterback merry-go-round during 12 seasons as the radio analyst for their game broadcasts. He also knows the value of a young franchise quarterback because he played with one. His first of nine seasons as an Oilers/Titans tight end was 1995, the year they drafted Steve McNair third overall.

Wycheck's experience as a player intensified his frustration with the recent instability. A different quarterback led the Titans in passing yards from one season to the next from 2008 to 2015.

"It's like a chicken with its head cut off," Wycheck said. "It's panic. It's stress. Because you know you need one, and you know when you have one."

The Titans had false hope after using top-eight picks on Vince Young in 2006 and Jake Locker in 2011. But Mariota is different, Wycheck said, because he didn't arrive with the questions other quarterbacks did.

Mariota pairs the physical ability and the necessary personality traits. Wycheck calls him a CEO quarterback who has stabilized the organization.

While it can be difficult to pinpoint the Bears' direction as they play out the string without an obvious long-term solution at quarterback, the Titans clearly see their path and are pushing ahead.

"Finally, you have that golden ticket," Wycheck said. "Let's build around him."

They drafted Michigan State tackle Jack Conklin eighth overall this year to help reduce the barrage of hits Mariota absorbed as a rookie. They also drafted running back Derrick Henry, the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner out of Alabama, in the second round and traded for running back DeMarco Murray to help ease Mariota's burden throwing the ball.

In Year 2 for Mariota, the Titans' sacks-per-pass rate is down to 5 percent from 10 percent last year. Their yards-per-carry average of 4.7 is fourth-best in the NFL, and they run more frequently than all but three teams in the league.

From behind the microphone on the morning show at sports station WGFX-FM 104.5 in Nashville, Wycheck also senses how Mariota's pedigree and nascent pro success has galvanized the fan base.

"Finally, with Marcus, they have a guy who makes fans proud to talk about their team and the future of their team," Wycheck said.

Sparking hope by acquiring a good, young quarterback is one thing. Cultivating that into sustained organizational success is another, more difficult challenge.

The Titans would attest to that after Young eventually fell out with their coaching staff and injuries derailed Locker's career.

Heck, the Bears could, too. Cutler's arrival in 2009 held so much promise. He was coming off a Pro Bowl season and, with his 26th birthday four weeks away, joined a defense loaded with talent. But eight seasons and only one playoff victory later, the argument for a reboot has become easy to make.

While Cutler's longevity without playoff success defies the norm, the cases of Mariota with the Titans and Winston with the Bucs underscore a cruel reality in the NFL: Hope creates expectations, which create urgency. The time required to develop a young quarterback and build a team around him often doesn't exist in an impatient NFL world.

Consider that Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt and Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith were fired before they even got close to their respective first anniversaries with Mariota and Winston.

Current Bucs coach Dirk Koetter was the offensive coordinator when Winston was drafted. He figured the organization was going to be patient after drafting a quarterback first overall.

"The whole patience thing," Koetter said with a chuckle, "that's sometimes in other people's hands."

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Bears tight end Logan Paulsen has seen other forms of proof that there are no guarantees with highly-touted young quarterbacks.

He was in his third season with the Redskins in 2012 when coach Mike Shanahan drafted Robert Griffin III second overall and doubled down with Kirk Cousins in the fourth round.

Paulsen figured that secured Shanahan's job for at least another year or two. Griffin won the Rookie of the Year award, but it all fell apart spectacularly in 2013 after Griffin was injured and clashed with coaches. Shanahan was fired, and Griffin eventually was jettisoned.

Still, Paulsen won a division title with each of those quarterbacks over the last four seasons. When the quarterbacks were playing well, the juice lifted everyone.

"I felt like we were invincible," he said. "I felt like no team in the NFL could touch us. I felt like no one had an answer for what we were doing. You start playing with crazy confidence."

For an undrafted player such as Paulsen, whose roster spot never was guaranteed, that mental edge was significant.

"It makes you play a little bit more comfortably," he said. "You can ask questions. You can do things that if you're just hanging on for dear life you don't normally do."

Bears need certain type of presence

The Bears' need for that type of presence continues to pulsate as Pace approaches his third player acquisition cycle as GM. And without an obvious answer in this year's pool of collegiate quarterbacks, the scope of his challenge matches the urgency, no matter where the Bears end up picking in the draft order.

Pace knows how important it is to get the Bears quarterback in place. As he has mentioned often, he saw first-hand how Drew Brees galvanized the Saints and ultimately led them to a Super Bowl title. It's an issue Pace obsesses over, one that threads together his daily work.

The Titans, meanwhile, believe they have their guy in Mariota. Those around the team feel its arrow is pointing up — for good this time. The feeling reminds Wycheck of how McNair energized the team more than 20 years ago.

"We rallied for him, and we loved him," Wycheck said. "We wanted to play well for him. We didn't want to disappoint him, and Marcus is having that same effect, especially with the promise he's showing. I think you can say he has arrived, and he's only going to get better."

Twitter @Rich_Campbell

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