The Jacksonville Jaguars will take the field for an AFC semifinal Sunday in Pittsburgh, and their future is as bright as their present. Their new regime of Coach Doug Marrone and front office football czar Tom Coughlin has reinvigorated the franchise. The defense is young and terrific, and rookie running back Leonard Fournette certainly appears to be the real deal.
But then there’s Blake Bortles.
It has become almost too easy to question or ridicule Bortles, the fourth-year quarterback for the Jaguars who has mixed moments of promise with far too many mistakes and discouraging steps backward throughout his NFL career. But the ease of it, the lack of a challenge, doesn’t seem to stop anyone. Houston Texans defensive standout Jadeveon Clowney derided Bortles’s on-field abilities this season by calling him “trash” — and that was at a time when Bortles was playing well.
Bortles threw 13 interceptions during the regular season, bringing his four-season NFL total to 64. He somehow managed to have more rushing yards, with 88, than passing yards, with 87, in a 10-3 triumph Sunday over the Buffalo Bills in the opening round of the playoffs.
It is enough to wonder: Just how good would the Jaguars be with a quarterback better than Bortles?
“I think, even in the short term, he’s a question mark,” former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said. “It takes forever for him to get the ball out of his hand. His accuracy is questionable. The Jacksonville Jaguars are where they are because of their defense. But eventually, you can only protect the quarterback position so much. … Blake Bortles won’t be the quarterback of the Jaguars next year.”
That remains to be seen, of course. The Jaguars picked up their fifth-year option in Bortles’s rookie contract, at a salary of more than $19 million, for next season. But that option year is guaranteed only for injury. So the Jaguars still could move on from Bortles at quarterback if they choose.
“Everyone understands the value of a quarterback,” Theismann said by phone this week. “With that number at $19 million, I can’t imagine Jacksonville paying him that kind of money. His delivery is so slow. Could it be fixed? It could be. It’s possible. But do you pay someone $19 million to see if he can fix that?”
That view is shared by others in and around the sport.
“They’ve put together a really good young team there,” said a front office executive with another NFL franchise, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to give a frank opinion of another team’s roster. “But if you’re them, you certainly have to give some serious thought to going a different direction at quarterback. There will be some options this offseason.”
Coughlin, the former two-time Super Bowl-winning coach for the New York Giants, could bring about a reunion with Eli Manning if Manning does not remain in New York. Could the Jaguars explore a trade for Kansas City’s Alex Smith, with the Chiefs perhaps ready to turn to Patrick Mahomes as their starter? Could they be in the running for prospective free agent Kirk Cousins, assuming he is not franchise-tagged again by the Washington Redskins?
“How about a kid who ranks in the top 10 quarterbacks who lives in Washington?” Theismann said. “That would make sense for them. But nobody is going to know what’s going to happen with Kirk Cousins until March.”
For now, it will be Bortles trying to rebound from his 12-for-23 passing performance against the Bills as the third-seeded Jaguars attempt to upset the second-seeded Steelers and advance to the AFC title game.
“When you run for more yards than you throw for, that tells you all you need to know,” Theismann said. “Pittsburgh is going to make him throw the football, and I think the Jaguars are going to struggle. To be honest, there really isn’t anything I’m impressed with. If you keep him in the pocket, you’re going to control their offense.”
Bortles acknowledged after the victory over the Bills that it’s “usually not ideal for a quarterback” to have more rushing yards than passing yards in a game. But as least it was part of a winning effort, he said.
“We get to play again,” Bortles said Sunday. “That’s all you can ask for. Obviously offensively we didn’t play the way we wanted to play. And kind of like our defense has played all year, they were incredible. Gave us opportunities. At the end of the day, you’ve got to score one more point than the other team. And we found a way to do that.”
Marrone said at a news conference Monday that he does not believe Bortles has lost confidence as a passer.
“I always see him coming to work the same way,” Marrone said. “If his confidence isn’t rattled by what’s gone on in the past, I don’t think something like that’s going to rattle him. You know what I’m saying? I think he’s going to come and just try to work, because his one characteristic is his toughness. That’s his greatest characteristic, to me, when people ask me. It’s like, ‘Hey, what do you like about him?’ I say, ‘He’s tough, both mentally and physically.’
“He shows up every day. … He just wants to know what he has to do, what he has to improve on, what he’s got to do to help the offense and just go to work. That’s the way he’s been all year. So he hasn’t changed.”
The Jaguars won handily in Pittsburgh, 30-9, during the regular season. But that was a game in which Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw five interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns by the Jaguars. A second triumph over the Steelers this season probably would require a performance by Bortles and the Jaguars’ offense far different from what transpired this past weekend.
“Everything is a concern when you want to play better, when you don’t play well,” Marrone said. “Like I said, we collectively, everyone — it starts with me to [offensive coordinator Nathaniel] Hackett to the assistant coaches to the players — we’ve got to do a better job. We’ve got to do a better job starting today. We’ve got to do a better job tomorrow. I mean, I know it sounds cliche. But it’s not like it’s one area. We’ve got to pick it up in all the areas and do a better job offensively.”
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