Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles has earned his shot to start, but the team hasn't seemed to notice.
Throughout the preseason, Bortles has outplayed starter Chad Henne, and the rookie's solid play continued in Week 4, when he completed four out of his six passes for 86 yards and a touchdown. That's an average of 14.3 yards per attempt, and much of that was on a fantastic 57-yard bomb to fellow rookie Marqise Lee.
Those are the kind of throws that made the Jaguars excited to draft Bortles in May.
That throw is one Henne can make but hasn't with any sort of regularity for some time now. Last year, Henne had an average passing yards per attempt of 6.4 (33rd in the league) and only had one game over eight yards per attempt.
That's just one stat that can tell part of the story as to why Bortles has had a better preseason than Henne, but there are a couple of metrics that show Bortles has had a better preseason than anyone:
Pro Football Focus' QB Rating and Accuracy Metric are modified versions of the normal NFL QB rating and completion percentage. They simply adjust for things like dropped passes and intentional throwaways. Every stat is flawed by what part of the story it can't tell—what context is left unsaid—but PFF's above metrics are worlds better than what you get in a traditional box score.
If Bortles has been so much better than Henne—perhaps even better than the rest of the league—why hasn't he gotten his shot?
He certainly deserves it.
Don't Let Preconceived Notions or Conventional Wisdom Make Your Decisions
This whole thing makes zero sense, unless one remembers what the Jaguars said right after the draft.
Dan Pompei of Sports on Earth revealed that Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell had become enamored with Bortles early on in the draft process and kept things close to his vest.
Though Caldwell "checked all of the boxes" on Bortles in terms of physical and mental tools, Pompei pointed out that the team had no problem admitting that the Central Florida prospect wasn't an immediate starter:
Caldwell had said Johnny Manziel was the most NFL-ready quarterback. Now, he is upfront about the third pick in the draft being a developmental player. He acknowledges the Jaguars are in a marathon, not a sprint.
"We don't think he's ready to play," he says the next day. "And we are going to go with Chad [Henne] this year. We feel good about what he can do for our team this year, and Blake will be ready to play in 2015."
A plan already is in place to bring along Bortles methodically. He will get extra work on the field and in the classroom, in the offseason and in training camp. Even during the season, he will get an inordinate amount of seven-on-seven reps, and coaches and receivers will spend time working with him after practice.
The problem is: Plans have to change when reality changes.
Mike Tyson famously said: "Everyone has a plan, till they get punched in the mouth." Isn't the opposite true as well? When life hands you such a serendipitous deal in the great poker game of life, it's not like you're supposed to fold because you figured your cards would stink anyway.
The Seahawks have clearly been dealt a winning hand, and they're going to slow play it into oblivion.
Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley owes much of his current job opportunity to the work he did with the Seattle Seahawks from 2009-12, learning a lot about defense from Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and helping build one of the toughest defenses in the league.
Bradley's final year in Seattle was also the rookie season of one quarterback Russell Wilson. Though many might have revisionist history about how much the Seahawks might have expected out of the third-round pick, Carroll explained his mindset to me as his team watched Wilson, Matt Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson compete in camp.
"It was an easy decision. Well, it was a hard decision in the sense that not many people would do it. We gave three quarterbacks a chance to compete, so we could figure out what we're dealing with," Carroll said. "We saw them perform throughout the process. Most people would conventionally think, 'Start the older guy.' We didn't do that. We knew we were paying one quarterback the more money. That never factored in."
An entire preseason of competition led to the third preseason game where the Seahawks coaching staff, according to Carroll, felt as if Wilson had earned a shot to start. If he performed well, it would make the decision a little easier.
"He kicked ass," Carroll said. "That's the philosophy working for you."
Tell me, has Bortles not kicked much of the same body part?
Instead of getting his shot, this is what happened: Before the third preseason game, the clamor for Bortles had begun to reach a fevered pitch. Instead of getting the start or playing a significant chunk of the game with plenty of passing opportunities, Bortles was not only second into the game but also gave up a chunk of time to Ricky Stanzi.
For me, that's the crux of this issue—one learns by doing far better than watching or listening.
We can hem and haw all day about whether it's wiser for a QB to sit behind an established starter or be thrown to the fire, and frankly, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence on both sides. The truth is, however, that no matter how advanced Bortles' training as a backup might be, and no matter how methodical their plans are, he is still not getting the reps and experience he would as a starter.
What Do You Have to Lose?
This is not an issue of wisdom but of conviction.
I have been vocal for two years now about my appreciation and admiration of both the Jaguars brain trust and the building plan it has in place. The battle was always going to be long and the climb steep, but this group has the chance to overcome the failings of the previous regime because they're so clearly the right people for the job.
To some extent, then, it is admirable for the Jaguars to keep traveling down the course they've set for themselves regardless of how circumstances have changed around them. Rather than be shifted back and forth, they are resolute in what they believe to be the best course of action.
That's conviction, but it's conviction in the wrong thing.
Back to Carroll—if only for a moment. In that aforementioned talk with Carroll, the philosophy he talked about working for the Seahawks was his "Win Forever" philosophy. Plenty of teams both inside and outside of Carroll's coaching tree use that method, which is centered around the idea that everything is a competition...everything is something that can be either won or lost.
It was that conviction in his own philosophy that allowed Carroll to take a second, third and maybe even a 12th look at the short third-round quarterback out of a Big Ten school hardly known for pumping out NFL-caliber passers. It was that conviction that allowed him to make a choice that had the Seahawks almost immediately in contention with Wilson under center and leading a Super Bowl parade this past winter.
Bradley and Caldwell may have conviction in their plan, but Carroll has conviction in his team.
Think about it. Think about the innate hubris that almost every single player in the NFL must have. To some extent, every athlete in the NFL comes from a situation where he spent much of his life as the big man on the ol' proverbial campus. Some of them may have been in that situation from Pop Warner all the way until draft day.
To step onto an NFL practice field means having the desire, if not the belief, that one deserves to be there.
Everyone—every single fan in the stands and player in the locker room—can see that Bortles is the better quarterback right now and is the only light at the end of the tunnel for a team that has had so little to hope for in so long. What credibility does the coaching staff have with any other player in any other roster decision if the most visible decision is clearly being made for reasons other than the play on the field?
It is as if someone needs to grab the Jaguars leadership by the shoulders, shake it vigorously, and let it know it's OK to adapt because life handed it something other than lemons.
Oh no, you say? Your rookie quarterback is ready far sooner than anticipated?
These are good problems to have! Embrace them!
The other big reason I have long been optimistic about the Jaguars' long-term chances is how single-minded this organization has become. It isn't just Caldwell and Bradley but also owner Shad Khan. He's completely on board with the people he's hired and is letting them do their jobs.
Though the wins haven't come nearly as quickly as some owners might have preferred, Khan appears to understand the limitations the starting line has put on the current progress. Of course, he will hold it accountable, but it isn't as if he's handing down mandates for playoff appearances this season.
If Bortles comes in and struggles, is that any worse than Peyton Manning, who had a terrible rookie season? If Bortles throws a lot of interceptions, is that any worse than Andrew Luck, who did the same just a few years ago? If Bortles wilts late in the year because the NFL season is a completely different animal than what he went through in college, is that any different than every other rookie quarterback before him?
Seriously, what's the downside?
There's this inane idea that floats around NFL circles as well that quarterbacks can be "shell-shocked" by being thrown to the wolves prematurely with little help around them. Perhaps it's existed for longer, but I first remember it regarding former Houston Texans first-rounder David Carr. He was sacked so many times between a terrible expansion-caliber Texans line that, at times, he literally couldn't drop back without flinching in his mechanics.
Jaguars fans may commiserate with parts of that story as former quarterback Blaine Gabbert has some of the same anti-pass-rusher tendencies. Yet, Gabbert's reluctance to stand tall in the pocket was well-known from his college days, and Bortles was selected by the Jaguars largely because he's almost the exact opposite type of player.
In public relations terms, the only possible downside might be the type of coverage Jacksonville receives. If Henne struggles, it's something many people expect, and there's always the possibility of Bortles coming in later. If Bortles struggles, that's it. There's nothing left to turn to.
It's a question of managed expectations, but that isn't reality. It's just perception.
In the end, it's a fool's errand to weigh the pros and cons of starting Bortles instead of sitting him. He's one of the best 22 football players on your team. Start him. He's your best quarterback. Start him. He's your quarterback of the future, yes, but he's also the most qualified to be the quarterback of your present.
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