Chad Henne looked as good as he ever has in an NFL uniform against the Chicago Bears. He went 12-of-17 for 130 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions, all while leading the Jaguars to points on each of his first three drives.
When No. 3 overall pick Blake Bortles took over in the second quarter, though, he quickly showed why he's the future of the franchise, and why the future just might be now.
The frame, athleticism and tools that NFL teams fell in love with at the NFL Scouting Combine were on display, and Bortles' ability to make plays on the run has never been in doubt. However, Bortles' mechanics, accuracy and decision-making were much sharper against the Bears than they looked on much of his college film.
The result: Bortles looks ready to take over right now.
Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell, though, has been insistent about keeping Bortles on the bench. The high-profile flameout of 2011 first-round pick Blaine Gabbert didn't just set the whole franchise back two years, it also got his predecessor fired.
The organization's admirable zest to avoid rushing Bortles, though, seems silly in the face of performances like this one. Whether Caldwell, head coach Gus Bradley and the rest of the Jaguars leadership actually let him start Week 1, there's no doubt he's ready to answer the bell.
Off to a Fast Start
Bortles impressed many with this strong preseason debut against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With significantly more reps at Soldier Field, Bortles was even more impressive.
On his first series, Bortles converted a 3rd-and-5 with a 16-yard completion to receiver Kerry Taylor. On his next pass, Bortles bootlegged out after a play fake and fired a bullet to receiver Mike Brown. The window he could fit it in was extremely tight, but his solid footwork helped him nail the throw.
On Twitter, Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller immediately noted Bortles' dramatic improvement:
Too often at UCF, Bortles would throw on the move off his back foot. See him plant and drive even on the run there?— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) August 15, 2014
The Jaguars ended up with a field goal on that drive, and they got the ball back with less than a minute left before the half. Bortles' laid-up Hail Mary didn't get the Jaguars a touchdown, but it was another well-placed ball that looked great in the air.
Perhaps the most impressive throw came on the next series. Facing a 2nd-and-1, Bortles made a good pre-snap read, went through his progressions and hit Taylor on a beautifully thrown go route. It's at the 40-second mark in this NFL.com highlight reel:
Bortles can make throws like this that Henne can't. Several times in the first half, Henne misfired on an out or sideline route. Without great arm strength or downfield accuracy, Henne is going to leave chain-moving plays like these unmade.
Bortles looked unstoppable on boot action. One of the best plays he made from that look, though, didn't count.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Jags were pinned deep in their own end. Facing an all-but-impossible 2nd-and-19, Bortles rolled deep into his own end zone and launched a 20-yard rainbow to receiver Chad Bumphis on the sideline. The improbable throw was just about on the money, but Bumphis couldn't quite catch it inbounds. Though commentator Jon Gruden criticized Bortles for testing his arm like that in his own end zone, it was a play of tremendous skill—and he very nearly converted a 2nd-and-19!
Statistically, Bortles has gone 18-of-28 for 277 yards in his first two preseason games. That's good for a 64.3 percent completion rate and an average 9.89 yards per attempt.
Even with all the caveats about NFL preseason stats in place, those are the kinds of efficient, effective rate stats most rookies never achieve.
If he's so far ahead of the curve, why doesn't he start?
Take Off the Parking Blake?
The short answer is, because the Jaguars really don't want him to.
NFL Media's Jeff Darlington decided to "playfully" hold Caldwell's feet to the fire when it came to keeping Bortles on the bench:
Given how people assume Bortles won't sit full season, I playfully pressured GM Dave Caldwell this offseason about his conviction. (Cont'd)— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) August 15, 2014
I asked Caldwell, "What if he looks like Marino in 83?" ...Caldwell's response was genuine and reasonable enough. Two words: "We'll know."— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) August 15, 2014
I believe there are two ways Bortles starts: (1) Henne injury. (2) Bortles proves he's an obvious star. Thus far? We can't rule out either.— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) August 15, 2014
Again, it's commendable that the Jaguars want to do right by Bortles and make sure he's ready before throwing him out at first-team NFL defenses. His long-term development means much more to the organization than short-term success—after all, it's not as though the Jaguars are in "Super Bowl ring or bust" mode this season.
However, that reasoning makes forcing Henne into the lineup just as unwise.
Henne isn't the answer at quarterback, playing well or not; the Jaguars already know that or they wouldn't have drafted Bortles. His career NFL passer efficiency rating is just 75.3, per Pro-Football-Reference.com; it's hovered within a few points of that mark throughout his six-year career. Henne isn't going to flip a switch and become a difference-maker this season, regardless of how well his pass-catchers perform.
Even assuming Henne's experience (and bare-minimum game management) leads the Jaguars to a win or two that rookie mistakes might have cost them, that's not going mean the difference between a playoff berth and staying home.
Bortles almost certainly isn't going to give Dan Marino's historic rookie season a run for its money. However, he's clearly much more talented than Henne, seems mentally tough and the Jaguars didn't draft him No. 3 overall to be a backup forever.
If the Jaguars are planning on starting Bortles at any point this season, they've got to get him reps with the first-team offense against a first-team defense. What better chance will they have than the third preseason game at the Detroit Lions?
Bortles' preseason has been fantastic so far, but he has to establish a rapport with his real receivers, and the Jaguars need to see him in front of a defense that's studied film of him and game-planned to stop his roll-outs and waggles.
Bortles' talent makes him the most dangerous quarterback in Jacksonville, and he looks far too composed and polished to be ruined forever by a rough outing or two. The Jaguars know what they have in Henne, and they can always throw him out there in Week 1 if need be.
Giving Bortles the chance to prepare for the Lions and execute the whole offense with the first team, though, would be invaluable to his development. If he flops, no big deal; he can stay on the bench to learn, as the plan was all along.
If he soars, though, there'll be no reason to hold him back any longer.