Imagine for a second the Jacksonville Jaguars offense led by Alex Smith. Or Kirk Cousins. Case Keenum can be thrown into the mix, too.
Any of those quarterbacks could have led the Jaguars to the franchise's first Super Bowl.
Instead, the team and the offense came up small in the biggest moments with Blake Bortles leading the way. Bortles gave the Jaguars everything he could during the team's recent playoff run, and it wasn't enough.
Yet the organization is prepared to pay the 25-year-old signal-caller $19.1 million next season to be its starter. The franchise is setting itself up to fail by taking this route.
Bortles played well in stretches and deserves credit for making a handful of plays through the team's two playoff victories and the first half of Sunday's 24-20 loss to the New England Patriots.
It's the plays he didn't make that speak volumes.
The quarterback position limits Jacksonville's potential. The defense is counted among the league's best. It gets after quarterbacks, flies to the football and talks a lot of junk. The group even rattled Tom Brady. The run game with Leonard Fournette leading the way finished first overall in rushing yards per game during the regular season and controlled large portions of each playoff contest. Fournette pounded defenses into submission.
The offense built impressive leads against the Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers with well-crafted game plans and overall execution. When it mattered against New England, though, the coaching staff became conservative, and Bortles failed to make plays required of a true franchise quarterback.
Bortles is just a cog in the machine. Jacksonville's front office applied flawed logic when evaluating the Central Florida prospect and even knew he wasn't an elite prospect. General manager David Caldwell drafted him anyhow with the third overall pick in the 2014 draft.
"I don't understand what people were picking apart on him. Look, he's not perfect," Caldwell told Sports on Earth's Dan Pompei mere days after making the pick. "I think you get caught up when you are picking high that he has to be the next Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning or even Matt Ryan. If you go into it with that mindset, you will miss out on some good quarterbacks. He doesn't have to be those guys.
"If he is the best he can be, that's going to be pretty darned good."
His best wasn't good enough to supplant Brady and the Evil Empire, because the fourth-year veteran hasn't developed into a playmaker. Jacksonville needs someone who creates outside of structure as well as making the plays asked of him. Neither comes from Bortles with any consistency.
If anything, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett became Jacksonville's breakout star during the postseason. Hackett built a scheme around his personnel's strengths. A novel concept, I know.
Obvious as it may have been, the Jaguars proved to be successful by imposing their will with a strong downhill running game. From that point, the play-action passing game became a big factor. Finally, Hackett built counters into the approach with run-pass options, the zone read and a short passing attack with tight ends, running backs and even the fullback involved.
NFL teams often become enamored with big, good-looking prospects who fit the mold of traditional quarterbacks. Bortles was 6'5" and 232 pounds with good movement skills entering the 2014 draft season. The Florida native posted top-five performances in the broad and vertical jumps at the NFL combine and ran a sub-5.0-second 40-yard dash. He looks the part, but he lacks the nuances that make talented quarterbacks into great ones.
Ironically, Bortles is the same quarterback today that once led the Knights to a 52–42 Fiesta Bowl victory over the Baylor Bears. He operated a run-first offense and feasted on a downfield passing attack built off the play-action passing game.
The quarterback's play-action splits coming into Sunday's contest were shocking. Bortles threw 11 touchdowns compared to one interception off the play-action game, per ESPN Stats & Info. His ratio evened out with 13 touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions without a play-action fake.
What Bortles can't do is sit in the pocket and pick apart a defense. He's not an anticipatory thrower. His ball placement is erratic. His raw arm talent is OK but nothing special. He's athletic, but he's not going to consistently beat opponents with his feet. There's nothing about Bortles' game that screams, "Defenses have to stop this!"
Caldwell was correct with his initial assessment. He's not Manning, Ryan or Luck. Each of those quarterbacks are known for their play in the pocket. They also made/make their teammates better.
A quarterback's true value is determined by what he does on third down, in the red zone and late in contests. The final point established the dividing line between greatness and Bortles-level play at Gillette Stadium.
Brady led two scoring drives in the final minutes of both halves. The 40-year-old veteran had a 136.3 fourth-quarter passer rating Sunday, according to NFL Research. The five-time Super Bowl champion has now led the Patriots to four playoff victories when trailing by 10 or more points in the fourth quarter, per ESPN Stats & Info.
Meanwhile, the Jaguars didn't even attempt to attack the defense with 55 seconds remaining in the first half after the Patriots narrowed Jacksonville's lead to four points, choosing quarterback kneels instead. And with the game on the line in New England territory, Bortles took a sack and completed one of three passes for four yards. His fourth-down incompletion, albeit a tremendous play by Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore, was Jacksonville's last offensive play.
Consistently good teams lean on their quarterbacks to make plays when they're needed the most. The Jaguars built a great cockpit, but they're lacking a competent pilot.
Any time a quarterback enters the contest and the opponent wants him to beat them, the offense is already operating at a disadvantage because the disrespect is real. Coverage gets tighter and safeties start to play closer to the line of scrimmage. Fortunately, the Jaguars still established their running game, which allowed the rest of the offense to operate at a competent level. Chunk plays were lacking, though.
Some blame can be heaped upon extenuating circumstances. The offense never operated at full capacity which placed more emphasis on Bortles' play. The team's top target, Allen Robinson, missed all but one offensive series with a torn ACL. Also, veteran blocker Branden Albert was supposed to serve as the team's left tackle before retiring. Albert's decision forced rookie Cam Robinson to take over the blind side and thrust Patrick Omameh into the lineup, and it took time for the offensive line to jell.
Here's the thing: Allen Robinson is a free agent, and his return isn't likely. Cam Robinson is going to be the team's starting left tackle next year, too. Those excuses only go so far when it comes to the quarterback's development.
The most logical plan is for Jacksonville to pursue the top available quarterbacks this offseason. The Jaguars have nearly $26 million available based on early 2018 salary-cap projections—which is more than enough to aggressively pursue an upgrade behind center. Releasing Bortles would add $19 million more in cap space.
Cousins and Smith completed a higher percentage of passes and threw for more yards and touchdowns than Bortles. Both averaged more yards per attempt as well. They're better all-around options. Cousins will be a free agent if he's not franchise-tagged, while Smith will likely be available on the trade market. Their experience and work from the pocket have the potential to put the Jaguars in Super Bowl LIII.
Even Keenum or even Eli Manning are better options. Keenum became this year's breakout star, and he's far more decisive and creative within the Minnesota Vikings scheme. Although, Keenum appears to be an upcoming recipient of the franchise tag even after his poor performance during the NFC Championship Game, per CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora. Manning is 37 years old, but his relationship with Jaguars executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin speaks for itself. Right now, the Giants appear content to keep Manning. If anything changes, Jacksonville needs to strongly consider the two-time champion.
The Jaguars now operate on a championship standard. The quarterback position can't be allowed to hold the entire program back. Bortles will continue to do so unless the team steps outside its comfort zone and addresses the position. It's never easy to move on from a first-round pick and someone the organization invested so much energy in, but it's necessary.
The Jaguars won the offseason in each of the last two years. The front office can do so for a third straight year by acquiring Smith, Cousins, Keenum or Manning. Otherwise, Coughlin and Co. are just wasting their young core's time.
It's quarterback or bust in Jacksonville because Bortles is much closer to a bust than a long-term starting option.
All stats via Pro Football Reference or NFL.com unless otherwise noted. Contract numbers courtesy of Spotrac, unless otherwise noted. Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.