JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Everyone in the building should be putting as much distance as humanly possible between themselves and Blake Bortles. The head coach. The defense. The scouting staff. Even the beer vendors should be sprinting far, far away from him at top speed.
Every employee associated with every NFL team knows their livelihoods depend on their quarterback, one way or another.
And here's Bortles, a human riptide, bound to bring everyone down with him.
That's been the narrative everywhere but Duval County, anyway. That the Jaguars defense could be historic. That the man running the show has three Super Bowl rings. That the roster is nearly flawless. That the Legion of Boom was reincarnated right here in Jacksonville, set to reign over the NFL for years...if only that quarterback who forever lets you down wasn't being trotted out for a fifth season as the starter.
Yet on this day in late August, five days after a grotesque preseason performance at Minnesota—one that suggested Bortles remains problematic—the Jaguars trot off the field in laughter. In unison. Bortles, out front, appears to be the one who cracked the joke.
Through the pack emerges offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, bounding with optimism into the bowels of the team's stadium. He sets up to talk in a dark corridor that feels like a creepy-calm setting from a horror movie, a scene where the killer is about to strike with a 13th, 14th, 15th career pick-six.
Bortles' game can be that scary. Nobody in NFL history has thrown pick-sixes at his rate. Nonetheless, the Jags decided to give Bortles a three-year extension in February, effectively attaching him to Hackett's hip.
Hackett is told his ass is on the line. His coaching career, his life, is on the line.
"For me, personally," he says, "my ass is always on the line."
And then he goes on to sing Bortles' praises. At length.
The quarterback mocked and memed and perpetually portrayed as that riptide that will pull the franchise under is not the Bortles the Jaguars see. They see a winner. A leader. A future Super Bowl champion.
"You see the things he can do—his execution, his efficiency, his ability to win in high-pressure situations," Hackett says. "You don't need to ever worry about testing him in adversity. He's been through every single amount of adversity you can ever imagine."
Out of the hallway and into the locker room, second-year receiver Dede Westbrook doesn't complain about the passer with the Tim Tebow-ugly throwing motion. Like Hackett, Westbrook would benefit from a more prototypical quarterback, and yet there isn't a drop of gloom in his voice. When told that most outsiders look at Bortles, then Tom Brady, and conclude the Jaguars will never get over the hump, Westbrook is visibly irritated.
"I don't think that's a thing," Westbrook says. "Tom Brady's great, but he's been playing football for a really, really, really long time. Who's to say Blake won't be that person when he puts that many years in?"
You think Bortles can reach that point? "Most definitely. Most definitely."
Wait, Dede. A Brady point? "Facts. Most definitely."
The faction of the locker room that should be the angriest about anything that might limit this team—the defense—bangs the drum even louder. Veteran defensive tackle Malik Jackson wants everyone to remember that Jacksonville reached the AFC Championship Game last season. Linebacker Telvin Smith channels his inner Terrell Owens, repeating, "That's my quarterback." They all see the Super Bowl window as open. With Bortles. With a quarterback who, a few weeks later, would go on to send all the haters back to their mothers' basements to troll somebody else after shredding the Patriots for 376 yards and four touchdowns on 29-of-45 passing in a 31-20 win.
With the New Blake.
With nothing but a memory of the Old Blake.
However, that version of Bortles may have never truly left. A week after the win over the Patriots, he's the one who would muster a grand total of two field-goal drives in a 9-6 loss to the Titans. He's the one who could pull the Jaguars deep, deep into an abyss to be forgotten forever.
So, who is the real Blake Bortles?
In perhaps 60 seconds flat, Hackett recaps the Bortles coaster. Buckle up, kids.
His rookie year was rough, understandable for even a third overall pick when he's transitioning from the University of Central Florida to the NFL. Hackett came aboard as Jacksonville's quarterbacks coach in Bortles' sophomore season, and that year was better statistically—4,428 yards with 35 touchdowns—but even Hackett admits, "He didn't play very well." The numbers were inflated by garbage time, and Bortles had 18 picks while the Jaguars won only five games. The third year? Downright ugly. Bortles' 78.8 passer rating ranked 26th in the NFL, the Jaguars went 3-13 and Bortles faced a do-or-die fourth year.
As Hackett puts it, "You should be ready" by that fourth year. But Bortles looked anything but in August of last year. After a few bad practices, the Bortles coaster fell off its tracks as coaches benched him for Chad Henne before the third preseason game.
"And he stepped up to the challenge," Hackett says, "like he does every time."
He didn't do so right away, but everything started to click for Bortles at the midway point of the 2017 season. By the end of the year, Bortles was one errant whistle, one horizontal Stephon Gilmore and many questionable penalties away from the Super Bowl.
Hackett cannot fathom why others perceived last year as anything less than a success. He points to the injuries all around Bortles—to running backs, receivers and linemen—and to the fact that Bortles threw touchdowns to 10 different players in the red zone, which he calls "beautiful."
"When I look at what he did," he says, "it was unbelievable."
Yet as the Jaguars kept winning, practically everyone outside the city remained unimpressed.
After the Jaguars beat the Seahawks in early December, Seattle safety Earl Thomas called Bortles a "subpar quarterback." After Bortles ripped the Texans for 326 yards in a 45-7 win the following week, Houston pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney called him "trash." In January, Titans defensive lineman Jurrell Casey bashed Bortles on Nashville radio station 104.5 The Zone (via Charean Williams of Pro Football Talk): "As long as Bortles is back there, if the ball game is in his hands, he's going to choke."
Trent Dilfer labeled Bortles the worst quarterback in the NFL late in the 2016 season, and media sentiment hadn't changed much by the time Bleacher Report's own Chris Simms called him the 70th-best quarterback in the league a year later. (Not to mention the Twitter account mocking him all along the way, @BortlesFacts.)
Hackett acknowledges that the floodgates have stayed open.
Maybe, he ventures, Bortles' game isn't "pretty" enough for people. Jacksonville's 10-3 wild-card win over Buffalo was as delightful as a kick to the groin, but what Hackett loved most was that Bortles found a way to scramble for 88 yards.
"To me, I think it's beautiful," Hackett says. "You're going to adjust, and you're going to find a way to win. That's what Blake does."
His voice picks up.
"Our defense is phenomenal. So they look at our defense, and our defense is balling out. And you want our offense to do good, but s--t, we were sixth in the league on offense. And Blake touches the ball every time and had numerous people in there.
"There's a part of me...I just don't know. Maybe they just don't want to give him credit. ... We sit there, and Blake and I laugh about it. He believes in himself. He believes in the system. He believes in what we're trying to do."
And the team believes in him. It looks at him and sees New Blake. It sees hidden qualities that outsiders mostly ignore.
His intelligence. Bortles has the freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage. More specifically, Hackett notes, he's brilliant when it comes to tweaking run calls. A huge reason Jacksonville is so dominant running the ball is because Bortles audibles Leonard Fournette into the right hole. Bortles does a ton prior to the snap that Hackett admits he never even prepares him for. Didn't people see Keelan Cole go for 748 yards in 2017? Bortles helped put this undrafted rookie receiver out of Kentucky Wesleyan on the map.
His fire. Hackett and Bortles fight. A lot. The coach calls the in-game feuds their own personal "cat fights." The longer they've been together, the more they challenge each other. "If I mess something up, he'll get pissed," Hackett says. "And I'll attack him back. All of a sudden, it's this big ol' screaming match. You have to have that relationship." After the fact, both are always relieved to hear the TV cameras missed them.
His calm. Years ago, Bortles' high school coach remembers one of his college coaches asking him what was wrong with Bortles. UCF offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe pulled Oviedo High School head coach Wes Allen aside at a state playoff game because he didn't understand Bortles' demeanor. If he threw a touchdown in practice, he didn't get excited. If he made a terrible decision and threw a pick, he didn't get angry. And as Taaffe told Allen, he could be telling Bortles something serious—it'd look like Bortles wasn't paying attention even a lick, staring into space—but an hour later, Bortles would recite everything Taaffe said word for word.
"That's Blake," Allen responded. "That's how he is. You're not going to rattle him."
He never gets too high, never gets too low.
When criticism reached Code Red heights last year, Hackett would ask Bortles if he was OK, and Bortles would respond, "Great!" as if he hadn't heard a peep. Probably because he hadn't. He deleted his Twitter and Instagram accounts long ago because, well, who gives a damn? He wouldn't talk for this story, either, because he doesn't care about trying to shape his own national narrative.
Not that his teammates are OK with the noise. It pisses them off.
Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins says those criticizing Bortles don't understand the game, adding if everyone knew he'd be in an AFC title game by his fourth season, "Everybody would be pretty f--king happy." Players from other teams throwing stones at Bortles? They're jealous, he says.
"Everybody that's outside talking about what's going on inside, it's because they want to be inside," Seferian-Jenkins says. "That's why they're hating. That's why they're talking all that s--t. Everybody outside is talking about this because they want to be a part of this."
Adds center Brandon Linder, "We don't give a s--t what anyone says. We want to protect him and fight for him."
And Smith: "I'm standing here 10 toes down behind a guy I know will do the same for me. I don't care if it's [against] a 300-pound O-lineman or defensive lineman...I know he'll stand there, 10 toes down with me and take whatever hit I'll take.
They know he can be the quarterback to take down a dynasty—as he nearly did in the AFC Championship Game last season, and as he would go on to do in Week 2 this season.
That's assuming he doesn't take down theirs first.
It's not so much what the Caseys and the Clowneys and the millions of haters online miss. No, Smith thinks everyone fails to acknowledge the progress, the fact that Bortles has been building into the quarterback he is today, because such patience in today's NFL is unheard of.
Most front offices would have hit eject on the Bortles coaster a long time ago. The Jaguars threatened him with Henne for a few days, but they instead Bortled along.
Don't get Smith wrong. Those pick-sixes took a toll.
"I can't even lie," Smith says. "We were getting frustrated as a team and as a defense."
But Smith promises he never lost faith.
The 2014 draft class, which included both Bortles and Smith, promised to turn a perpetual loser into a winner. Even though it's taken some time, Smith believes they've reached that climax. Together.
Smith knew Bortles' running back in college, Storm Johnson, and Johnson told him all about Bortles' mentality. How he eliminates the noise. How he finds a way to win. So Smith chose to believe through the, ahem, 12 interceptions returned for touchdowns.
Yeah, all the good vibes in the world don't change that Jacksonville might be better off with someone else. As the Jaguars built a defense that could be reach an '85 Bears level, they easily could've cut bait on Bortles for someone else. A year ago, they passed on Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson for Fournette. Less than a month after they handed Bortles his new three-year, $54 million deal, Case Keenum inked a two-year, $36 million contract in Denver. Even Teddy Bridgewater or Josh McCown might have been an upgrade, and Ryan Fitzpatrick has been available for loose change at various points over the last half-decade.
So, no, not everyone believes in Bortles.
"Same old," says one NFL personnel executive. "Things have to be perfect for him. Defense, protection, running game. Can't picture them coming from behind."
One player who faced Bortles in the postseason a year ago agrees, adding, "It's feast or famine with him. Some games he looks like Joe Montana, and some games he looks like Kyle Boller."
That's quite a pendulum swing for the Jaguars to bet on. You can hear hints of worry in Hackett's voice, too, as if he's still trying to rein Bortles in. He remembers his quarterback nearly choking away a win over the Chargers last season, saying Bortles went "into the tank" that day. Still, Hackett refers to that version of Bortles in the past tense.
He sees a transformation.
"That was Old Blake," Hackett says. "It's like, 'Hold on. We never want that.' Chucking and ducking. Doing stuff that isn't part of the system. All of a sudden, it's, 'Hey, use your feet. Don't force a throw.'"
This season, though, Hackett expects a full departure from Old Blake.
But Old Blake and New Blake may not be all that different.
Teammates don't point to any threads of a needle or any herculean throws when they gush over Bortles. What they point to are aspects of his game that've been around forever.
Growing up, Bortles was never a quarterback. From Pop Warner to his freshman year of high school, he was a linebacker and running back. Allen, the Oviedo High coach, asked him if he'd play quarterback, and Bortles replied, "Why not?" That's been his position since, but in title only. Bortles still insisted on participating in every hitting drill, mashing into one of the team's linebackers that'd go on to play at Kentucky. He'd drill him one-on-one "like he was a dang D-tackle," Allen says.
Every game, Allen needed to mix in QB runs early for Bortles.
Physicality got him rolling, not easy completions.
"Once he had that contact," Allen says, "he kind of got into the rhythm of playing quarterback."
Bortles didn't attend the slew of camps most young quarterbacks do these days, opting instead to lift weights with his teammates. That might explain why he never fixed that windmill of a windup, but it also explains why everyone from linemen to linebackers want to run through a wall for him.
He's one of them. He's loyal.
After committing to UCF before his senior season, Bortles told Allen not to bother entertaining interest from other schools. When Ole Miss called Allen, Bortles told him he was not interested.
And when Jeff Godfrey initially won the starting QB job at UCF, Bortles didn't waver.
Allen still remembers eating lunch with Bortles, at Burger U in Orlando, asking if he was going to transfer.
"He looked me dead in the eye and said, 'Absolutely not. I'm going to beat him. I'm going to beat him, and I'm going to be the starting quarterback at UCF.' I said, 'OK, I believe you.'"
The throwback who once told Allen he wanted to run an "85 Jet Roll" to run a cornerback over in high school—and did precisely that for a touchdown—is now having the same effect in Jacksonville. Teammates seem to love that his game isn't pretty.
Bortles never responds to criticism, so his center, Linder, provides the translation. Every lowered shoulder, he says, is Bortles' way of firing back.
"When you see him scramble for first downs, and he gets up and starts talking s--t to the guy, that juices everyone up," Linder says. "That makes us want to run after him and pick him up, and it translates to everything.
"Deep down, everybody wants to grab somebody by their f--king throat and beat the s--t out of them, but you can't do that. So it is what it is. ... That's how he shows it. He ain't going to talk about it. He ain't going to say anything about it. We'll do that for him. But he does that through his play out there on the field."
Adds Smith, "He's a com-pet-ti-tor. Even when we're down, we're not down. He's going to give it all he's got. He's going to take a hit in the chin for his team. He'll take that hit. There's a lot of quarterbacks out there that won't do that."
The Jaguars were so confident in Bortles last year, they decided to take a knee with the lead at the end of the first half of the AFC title game.
In the second half, they famously squandered that lead.
After explaining that he wants Bortles and his entire offense to be a force in 2018, to let defenses know they can never take a play off, Hackett's told that's exactly what they did. They took two plays off, to be exact. Two kneels. The Patriots sent them home, and even Eagles head coach Doug Pederson took a shot at the Jaguars playing scared in his memoir.
Hackett tilts his head back, says that everybody loves asking him about this and insists he is an "overaggressive" coach by nature, that he's "always gung-ho." He put in a no-huddle offense back as Syracuse's offensive coordinator. He wants to go, go, go. That day, the Jaguars played in fear of Brady because Brady, Hackett says, is the greatest player of all time.
True, but if you believe in Bortles, you aren't scared of Tom.
You go for the win.
"When you're given that opportunity, you want to go for it," Hackett says. "If it's the recipe for that time, you have to buy into it as a team, and that's what we did.
"We had our opportunities, and we missed 'em. You can't miss in that situation."
In other words, Hackett promises the Jaguars won't make that mistake again.
This season, there's no turning back. Jacksonville's front office is all-in on Bortles, and so is the locker room. Linder says Bortles is the "chillest" guy on the team. Neighbors on the beach, they've cracked open many a beer together. Nothing fancy, either. Whatever's readily available.
Seferian-Jenkins could have picked among a number of teams as a free agent in the spring, yet he signed here. He realized Bortles was a guy he'd love to play with back at the 2014 NFLPA Rookie Premiere, and he says he loves those 50-50 balls in traffic that tend to get Bortles in trouble.
Up close, Seferian-Jenkins sees Bortles bringing this team together.
"We definitely have a camaraderie," he says, "because of No. 5 and the way he carries himself."
For now, all of the Jaguars remain supportive of Bortles. They'll downplay their 9-6 loss to the Titans as nothing but a minor speed bump. Everyone from Calais Campbell ("When we need to win, they'll get it done") to Myles Jack ("We didn't lose to a team that was better than us") will shrug the game off.
However, Bortles remains the elephant in the room.
With above-average quarterback play, the Jaguars win that game. They cannot afford "New Blake" to pat, pat, pat the ball and safely throw out of bounds with that much caution. Maybe Bortles is somehow able to inject the best qualities of Old Blake—the linebacker mentality, the bold I'm-going-to-beat-him disposition that's been in him forever—into New Blake to get Jacksonville back to the AFC Championship Game and, this time, finish. Maybe this year, he'll need to make a play with the season on the line and his true identity will be revealed.
The noise around No. 5 will undoubtedly pick up if he struggles, though. This loaded defense will not stay together forever. The window won't stay open forever, either.
And here the Jaguars are, constantly insisting Blake Bortles is a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback.
Not just that, either.
They see a Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
"You're damn right he is," says Linder, "and I knew it from the get-go. And people will see it."
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.