Everyone in Blake Bortles’s life has a story about a Blake Bortles joke that pissed them off. The only person who doesn’t is Blake Bortles.
“Everyone hears everything,” said Nathaniel Hackett, the Jaguars’ offensive coordinator. “So there are times when you’re in the stadium and you’re hearing the things people yell. You look on [the internet] and see what people are saying, and I’m going, ‘Wow, I hope this doesn’t bother him.’ I’m asking myself, ‘Should I talk to him? Should I worry about this?’ But what’s amazing is it never bothered him. Ever.”
“It fucking pisses me off. I get so angry about it,” said center Brandon Linder, one of Bortles’s good friends on the team. “But he doesn’t listen to all the bullshit, he’s great about it. … If the joke is in his face he’ll laugh about it, but then lets everything go.”
Bortles has become something of a ready-made joke. After being selected with the no. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft and then ranking in the top two among NFL quarterbacks in interceptions in his first three years in the league, his name turned into a shorthand for bad quarterback play in the NFL. He has been the target of seemingly stray attacks from everyone from Saints pass rusher Cameron Jordan, who was talking about Drew Brees over the summer when he randomly fired at Bortles, to Texas Senator Ted Cruz, of all people. At the end of last season, Trent Dilfer called him the worst quarterback in the NFL. He is a gag in a popular NBC sitcom, The Good Place. ESPN’s Ryan Clark had to cover his face when Bortles’s teammate called him a top-five quarterback. And up until this season, he was the face of one of the worst franchises in football.
On Sunday, he is starting a home playoff game against the Buffalo Bills, the first one in Jacksonville since the 1999 season. Bortles has been many things this year, including the beneficiary of a historically great defense and the steward of the league’s sixth-best offense in total yards. His play is not elite, but it’s not a joke.
“I’d love to — I’d love to,” said Rob Bortles, Blake’s dad, when I asked him if he’d ever reached out or tried to talk to a pundit who took a shot at Blake. “We’ve talked about it. I’d say, ‘I’m gonna drive over and talk to this guy,’ and we have a family conversation and then we’ll say, ‘We’re gonna leave it alone,’ and I say, ‘OK, makes sense.’”
Bortles’s 2017 season is not a leap to superstardom. Instead, it’s defined by a less spectacular but perhaps equally important development: starting as a national joke and coming out the other side as a competent NFL player.
Yet, even as it became clear that the Jaguars were one of the best teams in the AFC, the shots kept coming — even from teams they’d just beaten. Earl Thomas called him “subpar” after Jacksonville’s 30–24 win over Seattle last month, in which Bortles threw two touchdowns. The following week, Bortles threw for 326 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-point win against the Texans. After that game, reporters asked if Bortles was improving. Jadeveon Clowney responded: “He’s trash.”
This allowed Bortles to go peak Bortles. He responded, “If how we’re playing and how I’m playing is trash, then I’m fine being trash.”
The 2017 Jaguars became a contender because they’ve got Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, the best cornerback tandem in the league; Calais Campbell, a defensive player of the year candidate; and Leonard Fournette, who is starring at running back. But there’s another factor, too: Blake Bortles is not trash.
Before the season, Bortles starting a playoff game was not a realistic scenario. Bortles starting any game seemed like a toss-up at one point.
In a league where narrative tends to become reality quickly, the Jacksonville turnaround is a modern football miracle. The life cycle of young quarterbacks is more grueling than ever. The new collective bargaining agreement, which restricts practice time, has been cruel to a generation of passers. Those who do not excel on their rookie contracts usually don’t get another shot to be a starter. Coming into this season, Bortles, who was in the last year of his rookie deal with an option year looming, looked like he might be headed for his NFL exit.
“I think he’s played himself out of the jokes,” said Mike Tiscione, a Jaguars fan in upstate New York. “I think there’s a stigma. People tweeted on a weekly basis this year about pick-sixes all season when he didn’t even have one. He’s played some of the best games of his life recently, and people still want to joke about those.”
Tiscione founded “Blake Bortles Facts,” a Twitter account with nearly 60,000 followers that started, he said, as a way of commiserating while watching bad football with his friends.
Blake Bortles is undefeated in 2018, and has yet to throw an incomplete pass or interception. pic.twitter.com/7zWH3JyFuI— Blake Bortles Facts (@BortlesFacts) January 1, 2018
Tiscione, a connoisseur of Bortles internet jokes, thinks they became popular across social media because the quarterback is the most famous face for a franchise that’s been a joke for a handful of years; attendance problems, the existence of Blaine Gabbert, and all the losses have all compounded to create the perfect storm of ridicule for Bortles. It makes for an easy joke on a platform where that’s rewarded. In short, he’s being punished for his franchise’s mistakes.
Given the sheer volume, it is impossible, of course, for Bortles to tune out everything, but he certainly tries. What does get through, according to people close to him, barely makes a dent.
“It’s on the news, but he doesn’t care or doesn’t let himself be bothered. There are a lot of people who would’ve folded and gone away but that’s just not in his makeup,” Rob said. What his dad is suggesting is that if there’s any quarterback who could be mocked mercilessly and remain well-adjusted, it is Blake Bortles.
“The night that he got drafted, I was up in New York with him,” said his college teammate and friend Joey Grant. “We went to some bar, and he’s being swarmed with people trying to get him to buy bottle service. Everyone’s coming up to him, and all he wanted to do was get a couple of beers, hang out with his family, and talk.”
Rob pointed out that the draft was basically the only time high expectations were placed on his son, who was barely expected to start at UCF and was the 44th-ranked quarterback in the high school class of 2010. So Blake’s expectations never rose too high, either.
“I don’t think he knows what his paycheck is. I mean that,” Rob said. (Blake’s cap hit is about $6.5 million.) “His big purchase was two pickup trucks, and he gave one to his brother. We weren’t trying to raise him a certain way, but it’s OK to eat at McDonald’s and Wendy’s.”
Rob said he and his son talk after games and that 99 percent of the conversation has the same tone whether Bortles performs well or badly. The signal-caller has, as tight end Marcedes Lewis told me, one of the shortest memories anyone has ever seen.
“If someone told Blake he was the best football player ever, he’d say, ‘Thank you,’ and then not think too much of it. If they say, ‘You’re the worst quarterback I’ve ever seen,’ he wouldn’t put any weight into it, either,” Grant said. Bortles’s ability to wash out the jokes comes in part from his good sense of humor about himself. A few days after I recorded a podcast with Andrew Luck last summer about the Colts quarterback’s favorite books, PFTCommenter of Barstool Sports responded by having Bortles discuss Wikipedia pages.
Even when presented with the parade of players, media, and, well, people like Ted Cruz who’ve made him the butt of jokes, Bortles seems unshaken. There’s never any talk about using his haters as motivation, either. He just … doesn’t care.
“They have the right to voice their opinion and do all of that, so they can do what they want,” Bortles said after l’affaire Clowney. “We’ve talked about it before: When you spend time or brain space or start saving information on all of those guys who have said bad things about you, it’s a waste of time.”
Social media is the epicenter of the Bortles joke industry and the reason it is so widespread.
“Blake, unfortunately, was developing as a quarterback in an age where you can post video on Twitter. If something doesn’t look good, it’s going to get shared 100,000 times to someone who never watches Blake Bortles play and a six-second video becomes his entire career,” said Grant.
Online jokes seep into real life, too. “You can shut off social media, but you’re going to hear it,” said receiver Allen Hurns. “The Jaguars didn’t win many games. He was the third pick, and even though it wasn’t always him, there are going to be jokes.”
Jaguars coach Doug Marrone also attested to Bortles’s ability to drown out the noise.
“I’d be naive to say I didn’t hear all of those things that were going on but he never really showed me it affected him at all. He fought through it all of the time,” Marrone said. “His best trait is his toughness — mental and physical.”
Rob Bortles doesn’t know exactly where the toughness comes from, just that Blake has always had it. He played every position in youth football, and when he’d get injured — which was often — he’d tell his dad he was playing unless he was in the hospital. And yet, knowing that Blake doesn’t care, the jokes still get to Rob.
“You’ll be watching a game that Jacksonville isn’t even playing in, and out of nowhere someone will make a comment about Blake. Obviously there’s a narrative,” Rob said. “From a parent perspective, I think that’s kind of lazy. If you want to watch a highlight film or a not-highlight film, that’s easy. How much game tape have you watched? Did a guy run a wrong route? I believe it’s a narrative driven by the people who publish it as opposed to the NFL. The talking heads gotta have things to talk about. I’ve had multiple people say the same thing over and over about Blake: Did they get together and talk about it? Did they just hear it, then talk? Do they all just see it that way? I don’t know.”
It is hard to overstate how likely it looked, from the outside, that Bortles’s days as a starter in Jacksonville were over. When Tom Coughlin was first rumored to be interviewing for a team executive job he’d eventually get, the report was tagged with the news that he was reportedly “no Blake Bortles fan.” This summer in training camp, there was an open competition between Bortles and Chad Henne, who has been backing up Bortles since before the jokes began. In fact, the New York Post wrote in the preseason that “Bortles’ demise is nearly complete.” (According to multiple teammates, the one time they can recall Bortles expressing frustration was during the quarterback competition, and even that was measured and brief.)
Bortles beat out Henne, but it was a close shave. Henne started the team’s third preseason game, a sign that the team seriously considered giving the longtime backup the nod.
Hackett, who was Bortles’s quarterbacks coach for two years before his promotion to offensive coordinator this year, said he was going to “start at ground zero” with Bortles and try to build him up in the offense as if he were a rookie. Hackett knew that Bortles had athleticism and mental and physical toughness, and that was enough to build on.
Around the league, it had become a running joke that Bortles was fixing his mechanics over the offseason. But this year, it happened.
“It was rough, and he’d be the first person to admit that,” Hackett said. The offensive coordinator added that Bortles was dropping his arm “really low” and wasn’t using his feet enough. “All his technique starts with how he uses his hips and feet. One of his great accomplishments is that he’s using his whole body to throw instead of just standing there and slinging it over and over again.”
Hackett said the defense and the running game — the two staples of the team — helped Bortles. But maybe not for the reason you think. The defense, he said, was so adept at getting the ball back to the offense that Bortles was able to get more live reps to get comfortable. The Jaguars ran the most offensive plays in football this year, giving Bortles more chances to master the offense.
Offensive lineman A.J. Cann said Bortles is a new man in part because he’s mastered some of the simple things, like audibling out of a run with a stacked box and passing. Lewis said he’s learned that a handful of skill position guys can “turn 5 yards into 25 really quickly” and to take the easy option on many plays. The Jaguars have helped Bortles immensely. Bortles hasn’t messed it up yet.
That’s not to say Bortles is elite, or even close to it. His performance this season has varied wildly, and so too has his role. He threw just 14 times against Pittsburgh in a 30–9 win October 8, but then he threw 51 times in a 20–17 win over the Chargers on November 12. In December, he had three straight games of producing a 119 quarterback rating or better — all three Jaguars wins — and he bookended those performances with ratings under 80. He is in the middle of the pack for nearly all statistical categories and has likely convinced someone that he deserves a starting job next season. Bortles’s option for 2018 is $19 million, and though it once seemed obvious that they’d cut him, it’s now unclear what the Jaguars will do. (Some beat writers have made the case that Bortles should return as the starter next season.) ESPN’s QBR ranks him ahead of playoff quarterbacks Cam Newton, Jared Goff, and Marcus Mariota. His completion percentage this season is a career high. Bortles’s early-season improvement could’ve been chalked up to eight-man or nine-man boxes, thrown together by defenses to stop Fournette, one of the most talented backs in football. But those fronts have declined in number in recent weeks as the run game has become less effective. By December, tape watchers like former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky were noticing that Bortles was feeling it.
I’ve experienced this situation as a QB in where the OC has said “ok let’s not make a mistake here” OR “alright F it, lets be aggressive”...the players’ confidence level was drastically different in the 2 mindsets! @Jaguars #jags #Sacksonville @BBortles5 @DPen7 pic.twitter.com/eeF8r4Abvb— Dan Orlovsky (@danorlovsky7) December 22, 2017
Bortles had to learn to wrangle in some of his downfield aggressiveness, “stuff like checking down,” Henne said. The coaching staff attributed a lot of Bortles’s previous problems — some of the, er, notable interceptions — to a type of competitiveness that, while admirable, led him to chuck the ball down the field in less than ideal circumstances in the hope of a big play that would erase a deficit. One of the biggest problems with Bortles, and why he’s been so ripe for jokes, is that his bad plays have looked impossibly bad. This year the turnovers are not gone completely, but headlines like “The Most Blake Bortles Play Blake Bortles Ever Bortled” are.
This is a fitting season for Bortles to lead a team to a division title and a home playoff game. The era-defining passing boom has taken a year off or is in decline altogether. Passing touchdowns are at their lowest point since 2009. Offense dipped nearly across the board. Injuries have removed exciting stars like Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, and Deshaun Watson from the equation. Into the void has stepped a group of good-enough passers riding complete teams to relevance.
“It’s funny that we’re the sixth-best offense in the league and no one wants to talk about it,” said Hackett. On the day we spoke, he had players coming up to him asking why they hadn’t been selected to the Pro Bowl. Four defenders got nods, but no offensive players did.
“I tell my guys, ‘We’ve been the shits for years and everyone is going to think we’re the shits,’” Hackett said. “That’s OK, because we’re going to beat them and they are going to be disrespected and think it’s horrible and think, ‘I can’t believe I got beat by the Jags.’ For us, it’s about continuing to do it so they don’t have a choice but to change their opinions.”
On Sunday, the Jaguars will start one of the most unusual playoff journeys in recent memory. They have a lockdown defense, the potential for an elite running game, and a deep crop of receivers, and plenty will rest on the arm of Bortles.
“It’d be awesome if he won a Super Bowl or became a Pro Bowler,” Rob Bortles said. “But really, I don’t think anything would change.”