Blake Bortles Is Getting the Job Done, but It Hasn't Won Him Any Fans

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 9, 2018

JACKSONVILLE, FL - JANUARY 07:  Blake Bortles #5 of the Jacksonville Jaguars warms up in the bench area in the second half of the AFC Wild Card Round game against the Buffalo Bills at EverBank Field on January 7, 2018 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

If you watch the Marvel movies and television showsand it's no longer cool to pretend that you don'tyou know that there is a whole universe of superheroes out there, from high-flying galactic champions like Iron Man and Thor down to gritty street-level crime fighters like Luke Cage and Daredevil. They're like NFL quarterbacks in many ways: fun to watch and root for, some more effective and exciting than others. 

There's Iron Fist, a second-stringer with a magic punch he can only use about once per episode, and whose backstory is a bunch of racially fishy Kung Fu cliches (he's a rich white dude who battles stereotypical ninjas) and whose Netflix series bombed. Instead of benching him, Marvel kept him around in other series as comic relief—a one-punch punch line the other heroes take turns making fun of between brawls.

That's Blake Bortles. The playoff quarterback who isn't any good, gets on your nerves and won't go away so we can watch someone better. The one Jadeveon Clowney calls "trash," per Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle, and even Ted Cruz gets to cast shade upon.

Poor Jaguars fans. Their team is relevant for the first time since the second Bush administration. Its last home playoff victory before Sunday was so long ago, that it was over Dan Marino's Dolphins.

But now, the defense looks like it could beat The Avengers in a toe-to-toe matchup. And Jaguars owner Shahid Khan even donated 1,000 tickets to refugees who settled in Florida after Hurricane Maria, providing a feel-good story in a weekend full of typically downbeat NFL narratives (concussion protocol hand-waving, sloppy officiating and Patriots parlor drama).

Yet the main takeaway from Sunday's historic Jaguars win was a case of the giggles over Bortles' 87-yard passing, 88-yard rushing performance, which was so clumsy and anemic that it could not be rationalized by any sane observer as "gritty game management" or "finding a way to win," our usual euphemisms for ugly quarterbacking in a victory.

Blake Bortles often appeared more effective as a runner against the Bills than he did as a passer.
Blake Bortles often appeared more effective as a runner against the Bills than he did as a passer.Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press/Associated Press

Bortles' boundless on-field enthusiasm only makes matters worse. He comes across like the tee-baller who dribbles a grounder in front of the pitcher, rounds the bases on preschool throwing errors and won't stop bragging about his "home run" until even grandma begs him to change the subject.

We never made a laughingstock of Trent Dilfer this way during the Ravens' Super Bowl run in 2000. Rex Grossman took his share of Turnover-saurus Rex jokes for the mid-2000s Bears, but opposing defenders and major political figures didn't feel free to take potshots at him.

The problem is that we're predisposed to laugh at the Jaguars. They have been football's Florida Men for a decade. If you hear a nitwits-in-the-news story of a Florida man losing his arm while trying to feed an alligator a double cheeseburger, the subsequent Blake Bortles joke is almost reflexive.

Even television writers get in on the act. The most famous fictional sports fan on the small screen right now is Jason Mendoza of NBC's The Good Place, a dimwit (portrayed by Manny Jacinto) trapped in a messy afterlife following a misspent earthly existence whose favorite football player is—you guessed itBlake Bortles. He's like David Puddy the Devils fan from Seinfeld, but without the swagger or hope.

That's Bortles to many fans: the guy who doesn't even get the fact that he doesn't really get it.

Saturday's triumph did little to change that perception. Screen passes sailed wide of their marks. Routine throws over the middle left his hand like he was trying to heave a pair of sneakers over a clothesline. Tony Romo, sounding like he was calling the Little League World Series, politely blamed the wind on the broadcast. But 18 mph on a sunny afternoon is not exactly the stuff of epic NFL Films documentaries.

This has been Bortles' most successful season by far, yet he has been one stride away from slipping on a banana peel since the Jaguars briefly benched him in the preseason to determine if Chad Henne was a better option. (Tellingly, he was not).

Even Bortles' best games come with asterisks. He threw for four touchdowns against the Ravens, thanks to three turnovers that gave him a short field (two yards, in one case). His three-touchdown game against the Texans featured some impressive throws, but the Texans were waving the surrender flag at the coin toss. His 268-yard, two-touchdown game against the Seahawks

Wait, this guy threw for 268 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions to beat the Seahawks, and four more against the tough-under-any-circumstances Ravens defense, and we're making fun of him? Not quibbling (rightly) about his accuracy, not just pointing out (correctly) how reliant he is on the defense and running game, but mocking him like he's a streaker who ran onto the field?

That's not really fair.

Bortles was better this year than Dilfer or Grossman in the seasons they drove great defenses to the Super Bowl without their learner's permits. At least Bortles has those magical punches of pure talent, including the ability to suddenly scramble when the defense least expects it, right after he fumbles a snap.

Bortles himself, according to Kevin Clark's feature in The Ringer, hears the rimshots and has made peace with them, even though teammates and family are understandably weary of the gag. He often comes across in interviews as a quarterback version of Rob Gronkowski, or the quarterback Seth Rogen would play in a movie. That just fuels our skepticism, because we expect quarterbacks to act and sound like central casting military cadets, especially the Dilfer/Grossman types hanging to a playoff run for dear life.

Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press/Associated Press

It's easy to brush off Bortles as a stumblebum who convinced himself that he's Brett Favre. It's also easy to see his occasional highlights, prodigious talent and measurables that would make Bill Parcells drool, and to then grow so frustrated at Bortles' mediocrity that it's rational to think maybe a little mockery might help him get the message.

Marvel's Iron Fist is the same way. He mutters little nuggets of fortune-cookie wisdom, broods like a Batman wannabe, then makes every dumb superhero mistake in the book. He prevails because of his allies, the occasional perfectly-timed magic punch and the fact that he is relegated to fighting the comic book equivalent of the 2017 Buffalo Bills.

But Iron Fist, like Bortles this season, does prevail, just as Jason from The Good Place muddles through many dicey situations (often by keeping quiet and waiting for them to solve themselves). All of them really want to do better. And like it or not, Bortles' show has been renewed for another week.

We don't get to see Aaron Rodgers in this year's playoffs. Cam Newton was just knocked out. Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson are long gone. The Brady-Brees-Big Ben games are gonna be a blast, but the next tier of surviving playoff quarterbacks is strictly B-list.

Case Keenum gets to play folk hero, and Nick Foles is the consummate pro in a tough spot. Marcus Mariota is walking away from a wild-card performance that was mostly a blooper reel, his near-fumbles and blocked shots retconned as secret successes.

The Immortal Blake Bortles deserves to be here as much as any of them, or any other game manager for a defense-oriented team in any other NFL postseason. But he's stuck being the comic relief.

Fair enough. Just remember that when he does strike, it's a doozy. And the rest of the Jaguars are no laughing matter.

   

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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