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Titans head coach Mike Mularkey and quarterback Marcus Mariota reflect on 7 to 3 preseason loss to the Jets at MetLife Stadium.
George Walker IV/ USA Today Network – Tennessee

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Imagine the Titans answering all their other questions with affirmatives this season — vast improvement from the secondary, same thing from special teams, enough pass-rushing depth, better coverage from the linebackers, young receivers catching on fast and good health for all.

If all that happens and Marcus Mariota is limited in any way and does not take another step forward in his third season in the NFL, what do you have? Another season on the fringe of the playoff race. Now flip it around and imagine all those other variables don’t come through as well as hoped, but that Mariota is all the way back, makes it all the way through a season for the first time and closes in on the quarterbacking greatness that hovers within his grasp.

That alone gives you a shot at something special. For all the other things that will help tell the story of the 2017 Tennessee Titans, No. 8 is still No. 1, by far. And after Saturday’s largely unimpressive preseason opener for the Titans — a 7-3 loss to the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium — here’s the headline: Mariota is exactly where he needs to be.

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Again, that’s “after” the game, not “because of” the game.” Mariota’s 2-for-3 performance in two possessions against the NFL’s worst team is no more a revelation than the sight of 30,000 empty seats posing as Jets fans. But it was his first time playing real tackle football against men who meant to harm him since breaking his right fibula Dec. 24 at Jacksonville, and he played like he always has before grabbing a headset.

“It was a blessing,” Mariota said afterward. “It’s an honor, it’s a privilege. … You kind of crave those moments when you’re going through the rehab process. You keep telling yourself, ‘This is what you’re working for.’”

► More: TItans vs. Jets: 5 quick observations

A blessing, honor, privilege and a step forward. Also, a confirmation of what Mariota has been vowing all along, and what the Titans have been seeing in two weeks of preseason practices. It’s been the question to me since the injury because I believe Mariota must have his wheels and the willingness to use them if he’s going to be elite in this league. He still has both.

“Honestly, he might be faster,” Titans safety Kevin Byard said this week of Mariota. “The main thing, you don’t really see any worries from him about the injury, any doubt about what he’s doing. You wouldn’t be able to tell he broke his leg last year. That’s the best sign we can get from him as players.”

If the run threat is there, this offense is more effective. And it’s not like Mariota is reckless — he’s quick with a slide and looks as comfortable as a leadoff hitter stretching a single into a double.

Remember, he wasn’t hurt on some wild ramble downfield but on an attempt to escape the pocket and extend a play. He went down awkwardly and it happens, and it can happen again in any number of ways, and turning statue isn’t going to guarantee prevention.

► More: New TItan Ryan gives himself ‘F’ in preseason opener

Mariota knows this and so does Mike Mularkey, and both spent months dismissing the notion of a different approach. But this was a long rehab, and Mariota has only been unleashed for a couple weeks. Believing demands seeing.

On Saturday, we saw Mariota roll right after a run fake on his first play, we saw Jets defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson read the play and get right in Mariota’s face, and we saw Mariota turn on his own jets to get away. Then a dart to Rishard Matthews. That’s Mariota’s game.

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Tennessean writers Joe Rexrode and Jason Wolf break down the Titans 7-3 preseason loss to the Jets at MetLife Stadium.

“Instincts just kind of took over — you just kind of play the game you’ve always been playing,” Mariota said of that play.

“I think that showed, all the work he’s put in — I mean all the work he’s put in — to come back full strength is paying off,” Mularkey said.

We also saw Mariota get crushed by the Jets’ best player, Leonard Williams, when the Titans’ interior protection broke down, and we saw Mariota bounce right back up. We saw Mariota escape another interior rusher and run for a gain of 6, and we saw him keep a play alive long enough for a big gain to Delanie Walker — called back for pass interference on Eric Decker.

We saw rust, too, but the key right now is that all the tools are there. Mariota was called for delay of game and, on his final play, had plenty of time but threw behind Walker and should have been picked off.

His accuracy can still improve. After studying every play from last season with quarterbacks coach Jason Michael, he said he detected some “lazy” footwork that often led to misfires. Now that Mariota has gotten the running and hitting out of the way, there’s time to get sharp. And he could use rookie Corey Davis (hamstring) on the outside as soon as possible.

The Titans’ first-team offense clearly needs something after its scoreless debut, and Mariota probably would have played all night — or at least until he scored — if he were allowed. He lobbied for a third series. Michael was the one who got to tell him to forget about it.

“He’s the most competitive guy I think I’ve ever been around,” Michael said of Mariota. “And I think that’s what people don’t see sometimes from the personality.”

The personality made sure the game remained the same. And it should keep getting better. The only time Mariota looked uncomfortable Saturday night was standing on the sideline.

Contact Joe Rexrode at jrexrode@tennessean.com and follow him on Twitter @joerexrode.

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