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I Don’t Hate Blake Bortles, But …

… the Jaguars need to talk about their quarterback problem

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

“I love discourse. I’m dying to have my mind changed. I’m probably the only liberal who read Treason, by Ann Coulter. I want to know, you understand? I like listening to everybody. This to me is the elixir of life.”

That quote changed me. Since first reading those words uttered by Jack Nicholson, no matter how strongly I believe in something, I’ve forced myself to be open to the possibility of having my mind changed. For example, I don’t believe for one minute that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating President John F. Kennedy. I admit to watching the movie JFK 10,000 times and am well aware of the liberties taken by writer-director Oliver Stone. I don’t believe every word, just the basic premise — the lone gunman theory was far bigger than Oswald. To balance Stone’s theories, I devoured every book supporting the notion that Oswald was the lone gunman, and I still don’t buy it. Norman Mailer never convinced me, nor did Anthony Summers. If anyone could explain all the inconsistencies with Oswald’s movements and associations, then maybe I could be convinced. That has yet to happen.

It isn’t just matters as vast and sensitive as a national tragedy that I refuse to change my mind about. There are even small things in the NFL about which I am unshakable in my opinion. One thing in the league that I refuse to change my mind on given the ongoing evidence: Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles is not a franchise player, or even a quality starter in the NFL.

I Don’t Hate Blake Bortles, But

I readily admit that determining whether a player is a franchise quarterback is not as easy as passing “The Door Test” from A Bronx Tale.

It takes time and an open mind, things that don’t seem to exist in Jacksonville. Just read these comments from the man who drafted Bortles: “I think you guys know how we feel about Blake,” general manager David Caldwell said last month. “We’ve got a lot of new eyes on Blake from a new coaching staff and have gotten good feedback from those guys, guys that haven’t been around and who don’t have anything vested in the kid. We still think … he’s got a lot of room to improve.”

New eyes? Head coach Doug Marrone — who had the “interim” tag removed this offseason — has watched Bortles play for the past 32 games (first as an assistant head coach beginning in 2015), as has former QB coach and new offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, and Ron Middleton, the tight end coach. Only newly installed quarterback coach Scott Milanovich has never worked with Bortles. Does that count as a lot of new eyes?

Am I to assume that new Jaguars executive vice president Tom Coughlin has watched the tape over the past two years — witnessing eight wins and 24 losses in those 32 games — and determined that Bortles’s flaws are just a matter of technique and fundamentals? Am I also to assume that Coughlin has ignored that in the first half of those games Bortles has thrown 20 touchdowns and 19 interceptions with just 27 completions over 25 yards?

What makes Bortles’s numbers so alarming is that over the same span Ryan Fitzpatrick — currently out of work — has thrown 22 touchdown passes and seven picks in the first half. Most NFL fans, and especially the six teams that “Fitzy” played for, believe he is at best a journeyman backup. Yet the powers that be in Jacksonville think Bortles can improve. Even bad quarterbacks can play well to start games — but not Bortles.

I Don’t Hate Blake Bortles, But …

What has Bortles accomplished to deserve to have his fifth-year option exercised, which the Jags did last week?

Here is Caldwell’s explanation:

Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me. Why are the Jags so eager to wager $19 million on the belief that Bortles will play well? Granted the option is guaranteed only for injury and Bortles has not missed a game since his rookie season in 2014. But why risk it? Why potentially expose $19 million on a hunch with no documented evidence it will pay off. After 45 starts, haven’t they seen enough to know?

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Over the past five years no team in the NFL has been as generous with free-agency money as Jacksonville. The Jags consistently reward players for playing well on other teams. Then when they arrive in Jacksonville, after cashing their checks, they go into witness protection. From Zane Beadles, to Jared Odrick, to Julius Thomas, to Toby Gerhart, to Davon House, the list goes on and on. Busts abound. Currently, four of the top five highest-paid players on the Jags have come via the free-agent spending sprees. Of that five only Allen Hurns, who was signed after going undrafted, is homegrown.

Besides losing money with each free-agent mistake, the Jags front office also loses the confidence of the players in the locker room. Putting Bortles on notice would have been a wiser choice. The players know Bortles is the favorite of the front office, and after the draft they missed a chance to send a strong message to the locker room that they are no longer tolerating losing. Being 15–49 since 2013 isn’t good. The time is now for everyone to do better. Including Bortles.

My solution for the Jags would be to create competition. The only way the Jags are going to convince themselves Bortles is not good enough is to allow another quarterback to compete for the starting job. Don’t give anything away — make Bortles earn it. Call the Bears, see if they might be interested in moving Mike Glennon now that they have Mitchell Trubisky. Call the Packers and ask if Brett Hundley is available for trade. Call the Pats. Call everyone. Sitting back and hoping Bortles turns it around is not the answer. Don’t ever confuse hope for a plan. The Jags need to be proactive and force Bortles to prove himself. Now is the time for planning. If Bortles proves me and others wrong, then great. Just stop giving it away.

I Don’t Hate Blake Bortles, But …

I am not buying the “his supporting cast is horrible” theory, so don’t try to sell it to me. Great quarterbacks are like great deodorants — they make everything smell better. A talented quarterback can take mediocre talent and get into the playoffs. There is no better example of the impact quarterbacks make than the Colts team with Peyton Manning in 2010 and without him in 2011. In 2010 the Colts won 10 games; in ’11, just two. Yes, Manning is a Hall of Fame talent, and Hall of Fame talents make their teammates better. But even without Manning, the 2012 Colts surprised the NFL and went back to their double-digit-winning ways. Here’s why: Andrew Luck. The reason quarterbacks are the highest-paid players in the sport is their ability to raise the game of others. Their impact is often immediate and profound.

I Don’t Hate Blake Bortles, But …

Why do the Jags have so much faith in a player who has thrown 69 touchdown passes over his career — only five of which have come with the team leading the game? How can they have this much faith when in the fourth quarter of games that the Jags are actually in a position to win, Bortles has thrown seven touchdowns against eight picks? Does Caldwell leave the game before this happens like Dr. Evil assuming “it all goes to plan”? Thirty-two of Bortles’s 69 touchdown pass have occurred when the Jags have been down by more than a touchdown. More than half of his touchdowns have come in what could be considered garbage time.

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Once again, Fitzy is better than Bortles in this respect. In the past 30 games, Fitzpatrick has thrown 43 touchdown passes and 32 picks. Twenty-three of those touchdowns have occurred when playing with the lead or tied. In those situations, Fitzpatrick has thrown only five picks. Just five. Like most quarterbacks, things fall apart for Fitzy when he is losing. Down by seven or less, he has thrown 12 interceptions. Down by eight or more: eight picks. Down by 15 or more: seven picks. Add it up, and he has thrown 15 of his 32 picks when trailing by more than seven points.

Even in the fourth quarter, when it’s just a one-score game, one way or the other, Fitzpatrick averages 7.5 yards per attempt and Bortles just 5.7.

This makes perfect sense. When Fitzpatrick’s team falls behind, he tries to be a hero and often makes bad decisions. Bortles is the opposite. He comes to life when trailing. He plays his best when the defense’s opponent is the clock, not the Jags. If Bortles were in the NBA, he would get all his rebounds off of missed free throws — the ones that are hardly contested.

Above all else, Jacksonville is protecting its draft pick. Bortles has sponsorship from the front office — they are fully invested in his play. They are willing to overlook warts, make endless excuses, and convince themselves that time and improved fundamentals will make the problems go away. Meanwhile, Fitzy has never had any real sponsorship. He was a late-round pick, so how could he be any good?

Don’t take my word for it: Call the Jags front office and ask who is a better player, Bortles or Fitzpatrick. They will say Bortles without a doubt — and without any evidence to support their conclusion other than he is their draft choice. The best teams in the NFL can accurately and objectively evaluate their own players. The bad ones begin with the end in mind — a predetermined judgment.

I Don’t Hate Blake Bortles, But …

Brett Favre once told a former coach: “For a quarterback to become great, he has to pass the keyhole test.” Favre believed all QBs entering pro football could accurately throw the ball through a door opening. The more accurate ones can hit the doorknob. The ones destined for greatness can precisely hit the keyhole. For Favre, pinpoint accuracy matters. Once again, I will ask Jags fans: Does Bortles have that keyhole accuracy?

Ignore that for his career he has a completion percentage below 60. Those numbers can be misleading, as we’ve learned from the rise of the bubble screen pass play in the NFL. When Bortles has to put the ball in the right spot — a spot where only his receiver can make the catch — he’s as wild as Ricky Vaughn from Major League. For every throw his supporters claim is pinpoint accurate, I can show you 10 that fail to hit the strike zone.

By the way, Fitzy’s completion percentage is 58.3 over the past 30 games. Bortles’s is 58.8. Fitzpatrick is still an unsigned free agent. Just saying.

I Don’t Hate Blake Bortles, But …

How can a team believe that a quarterback is the centerpiece of a franchise if he’s won just two road games in his career? The sounds of silence in the stands after a road win are intoxicating, and the best measuring stick for evaluating teams is how much success they find away from home. Winning on the road takes mental toughness, focus, concentration, and talent to win away from home.

Bortles has never beaten an AFC South team on the road. Does Caldwell attend road games? How could he not see a quarterback incapable of succeeding on the road?

I Don’t Hate Blake Bortles, But …

How many more offensive coaches are going to lose their jobs over not being able to develop Blake? First Jedd Fisch, then Greg Olson. Now Nathaniel Hackett has the responsibility. That’s three offensive coordinators in just four years. At what point does the front office realize that it’s not the coaching, it’s the talent?

The Jags have spent money in free agency while hiring and firing a slew of coaches, all to help preserve their hope that Bortles can be their savior. No offense can function properly without an accurate passer who can anticipate throws. The team can hire whomever they want — the Bortles issues will continue to surface.

I Don’t Hate Blake Bortles, But …

Do the Jags need a meeting with a Mr. X–like figure to lay it all out? Or is Tom Coughlin the Mr. X the Jaguars have been waiting for? Either way, the team needs to understand who they have under center, and soon. Because understanding, as Nicholson told us, is “the elixir of life.”