Are the Jaguars Wasting Their Super Bowl Window with Blake Bortles?

Doug Farrar@@BR_DougFarrar NFL Lead ScoutJuly 26, 2018

FOXBOROUGH, MA - JANUARY 21: Blake Bortles #5 of the Jacksonville Jaguars reacts after a penalty call in the second quarter during the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on January 21, 2018 in Foxborough, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

At the end of the first half of the Jacksonville Jaguars' AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots, the Jags held a 14-10 lead and quarterback Blake Bortles was, relatively speaking, on fire. Aided by an able running game and a ton of play-action looks that set the Pats defense on edge and gave him easy reads and openings, Bortles completed 13 of 15 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown.

But as Jacksonville's passing offense became more standard and less tied to the running game, Bortles did what he tends to do when the game is put on his shoulders—he faltered and regressed. In the second half, Jacksonville's franchise quarterback completed 10 of 21 passes for 138 yards. As Tom Brady did what he does and brought the Patriots from behind to a 24-20 result, the Jaguars were left with a lot of questions about how far they can go with the most talented, explosive defense in the league, a top-tier running back in Leonard Fournette and a quarterback who needs a ton of schematic and personnel support if he's to succeed.

The team stated which side it was on when Bortles received a three-year contract extension worth $54 million in base salary. The contract could bump up to $66.5 million with incentives. At the 2018 scouting combine in February, Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell said that the team doesn't view Bortles as a placeholder.

"This wasn't a decision where he's going to be here for a year and we're going to be keeping our eyes out."

Well, if Bortles has another season like he did in 2017, the team will have to keep its eyes open. While he had his moments when he looked like the quarterback the Jaguars wanted him to be, Bortles also had games like the October win over the Steelers in which he completed eight passes in 14 attempts for 95 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. This came one game after the Jags lost to the New York Jets, and Bortles completed just 15 passes in 35 attempts for 140 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Mostly, the Jaguars kept Bortles protected; when they didn't, the results were often reductive. There was the 20-17 win over the Chargers in which Bortles attempted 51 passes, completing 28 for 273 yards, one touchdown and two picks. But the most graphic example of what happens when Bortles is asked to seize the day came against the 49ers. In this 44-33 Week 16 loss, Bortles threw two touchdowns and three interceptions and looked completely gobsmacked in the face of San Francisco's intermediate and deep coverage.

Of course, now that the new contract is a done deal, player and coaches have all issued their statements of belief. Bortles, for his part, is convinced that in his second full season with offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, all will be revealed.

"When we started last year, it was kind of an elementary level, in terms of 'I'm hearing the play, I'm thinking about the footwork I have to take, the identification, trying to remember what routes guys are running and all that,'" Bortles told George Diaz of the Orlando Sentinel in June. "Now, I think I'm kind of owning the offense and having a better understanding of it. Obviously, it is a continuous study and a continuous grind to continue to master it and stay on top of it, but I definitely feel more comfortable with it."

Hackett now reflects on the fact that when he took the Jacksonville job, he essentially inherited a quarterback who didn't know how to see the field and respond at a professional level—quite an indictment for a guy who was selected with the third overall pick in the 2014 draft.

"I remember my first meeting with Blake [in 2015, when Hackett became Jacksonville's quarterbacks coach], asking him, 'Do you know what this means?' Nope. 'Do you know what this means?' Nope," Hackett told The MMQB's Albert Breer in June. "And I'm like, Oh, goodness, we've got to go back to the beginning. And those are things that, once you process it, he may want to be like, 'Let's go out there and do it.' And you're like, 'Hold on, buddy.' And as a young guy, he was scrambling.

"A lot of the time, I don't blame him, he just looked over at [receiver Allen Robinson], and threw him the ball. And he's like, 'Hey, that's my security blanket, that's what I was doing in college.'"

Well. Robinson is gone; he signed a massive free-agent contract with the Chicago Bears after missing most of the 2017 season because of injury. And second receiver Allen Hurns signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Bortles' current top trio of receivers is hardly a Murderers' Row with Marqise Lee, Donte Moncrief and Keelan Cole—but at this point, it's up to Bortles to elevate this offense to match all the other aspects of the team.

For that to happen, Bortles will have to elevate himself past the point where he is—a quarterback who must have the threat of the run in his back pocket and one who tends to fold under pressure to a grievous degree. Per ESPN Stats & Info, Bortles threw 11 touchdowns and just one interception in play-action and 13 touchdowns to 12 interceptions without in 2017. And per Pro Football Focus, Bortles' passer rating dropped from 96.0 to 55.2 when he was pressured—that 40.8 drop was the league's worst.  

Clearly, though, the Jaguars feel that Bortles is fixable and that his primary deficit as a quarterback—an inability to read routes and coverages at a professional level—can be worked out. If that's true, it's not something that happens overnight, and Bortles will have to benefit not only from play action but also from clear run looks that fool a defense. Bortles' skill set simply hasn't developed to the point where he can lead his team consistently as a passer.

Bortles' touchdown pass in the aforementioned AFC Championship Game is evidence of the benefits he gets from clear run looks.

Here, Lee (No. 11) is the right-side wide receiver, and tight end Marcedes Lewis (No. 89) is aligned to the right side of the formation.

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Pre-snap, Lee motions alongside Lewis, bringing even more of a run look as if Lee is to block. This motion takes cornerback Stephon Gilmore (No. 24) to linebacker depth and out of coverage.

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At the snap, Bortles fakes an inside handoff to Fournette (No. 27), which focuses New England's defense on a potential run.

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With that focus, safety Patrick Chung (No. 23) and linebacker Cassius Marsh (No. 55) are taken out of position, and Lewis is wide-open for Bortles' throw.

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Similarly, this 27-yard completion to Hurns in the second quarter came off the threat of the run, forcing single coverage that Bortles could easily read.

Hurns (No. 88) is the inside right-side receiver in a Twins formation, with Cole (no. 84) outside.

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The Patriots are playing man coverage outside in a nickel formation, and when Bortles fakes the handoff to Fournette and Fournette releases out on a short route, it occupies both linebackers.

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Now, it's up to either Cole up the seam to beat cornerback Malcolm Butler (No. 21) or Hurns to get free of cornerback Eric Rowe (No. 25) as he runs a deep out-cut to the boundary.

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It's Hurns who gets open, cutting a tight turn on his route as Rowe struggles to keep up. Because Bortles has a clean pocket and time for the route to develop, it's an easy play.

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Bortles falls short far too often when he doesn't have the benefit of play action and has to read coverage late in the down. This Tyrann Mathieu interception in Jacksonville's Week 12 loss to the Arizona Cardinals is a perfect example.

Mathieu (No. 32) does a brilliant job of disguising his coverage intentions: He starts the play at linebacker depth, and Bortles thinks he's got an easy opening on a short pass to receiver Dede Westbrook (No. 12), who's on the outside of a right-side Twins formation.

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Just as the ball is snapped, Mathieu tears off to the line of scrimmage as if he's going to blitz Bortles.

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When Westbrook runs a quick out route, this seems like an automatic completion.

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But Bortles doesn't process Mathieu's change of direction, and Mathieu is able to get between the ball and Westbrook for the pick.

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When you have a quarterback who can only succeed consistently in specific, simple situations, it obviously limits what you can do in the passing game. The Jaguars are stuck with what Bortles is and what he isn't, and it affects every aspect of their offense. If he's not able to develop as a quarterback to take on the reads and responsibilities of the position, it puts a team that's stacked at just about every other position in the uncomfortable role of caretaker to the most important position on the field.

And that is no recipe for Super Bowl contention in the modern era.