Blake Bortles is not the worst quarterback in the NFL. Friends, Nathan Peterman exists. Bortles, however, is the quarterback who has cost his team the most. The Jaguars have assembled one of the best defenses in football, through smart drafting and aggressive free-agent spending. They ranked second in the league in scoring defense last season, and are second in yards allowed per play this fall. And their quarterback is Bortles, who has never been even an average passer. In his four full seasons as Jacksonville’s starter, Bortles has never finished better than 20th in passer rating. He’s never led the league in any positive passing stat, but has led the NFL in sacks taken, fumbles, and interceptions. He has the most turnovers (90) of any player since he entered the league.
It is not impossible for the Jaguars to achieve success with Bortles. They reached last season’s AFC championship game, nearly making it to Super Bowl LII. They led the Patriots by 10 points in the fourth quarter … and then Tom Brady happened, as he often does. But Bortles is clearly holding Jacksonville back, and yet the franchise has chosen to go all in on him. The front office has refused to consider other QB options year after year, and just gave Bortles a three-year, $54 million contract extension.
Now the team is paying the price for its Bortles loyalty. After opening the 2018 season 2-0 with a convincing revenge win over the Patriots, the Jags have fallen to 3-4 and have dropped three games in a row, scoring just 28 combined points in those defeats. Several factors have contributed to this dip, including a glut of offensive line injuries and the extended absence of running back Leonard Fournette, but some problems are unmistakably Bortles-centric: The Jags rank 28th in points scored, just like Bortles is 28th in passer rating. On Sunday, head coach Doug Marrone benched Bortles for backup Cody Kessler after Bortles’s two-turnover, zero-point first-half showing against the Texans. Kessler immediately looked like an improvement, but didn’t do enough to win, and reporters later witnessed shouting matches and near fights between Jaguars teammates in the locker room. In spite of this, Jacksonville has announced that it will go back to Bortles as its starter in Week 8. Jacksonville always goes back to Bortles.
In the 1960s, mathematician Edward Lorenz devised the butterfly effect, a scientific model that theorizes that one small change in an initial state can cause large-scale, unpredictable changes in future states. Lorenz cited an example of a tornado’s path being influenced by a distant butterfly flapping its wings weeks earlier. The NFL’s version of this is the Bortlesfly effect. In fact, it’s the very key to understanding the football universe.
Let’s go through some of the Jaguars’ past Bortles decisions and forecast the wide-ranging effects that a different choice could have had. Then let’s examine what Jacksonville should do at QB now—and what’s truly hanging in the balance when it comes to this decision.
May 8, 2014
What Happened: The Jaguars drafted Bortles no. 3 overall.
What Could Have Happened: The Jaguars draft Johnny Manziel no. 3 overall.
The wrongest I have ever been about a sports thing since becoming a professional sportswriter was steadfastly believing that the majority of NFL teams were foolish for passing on Manziel. In 2014 I wrote almost exclusively about college football, and, well, the Johnny Football college experience was unlike anything I’d ever seen. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner seemed like the best QB on the board, and I was flabbergasted when the Jaguars, owners of the no. 3 pick, anointed Bortles as the premier quarterback in his class. I enjoyed Bortles in college—I enjoyed him a lot, as you can see here—but felt that Jacksonville’s decision to select the UCF star was another example of an NFL team valuing sheer size over talent when it comes to evaluating QB prospects.
Suffice it to say, I was wrong. Manziel failed out of the NFL within two years and is now quarterbacking for the Montreal Alouettes, the worst team in the CFL. Through six games in 2018, he has three touchdown passes against seven interceptions—and that’s in the CFL, which produces wild passing numbers. Bortles has been markedly better than Manziel, but that’s where the Bortesfly effect gets interesting. I think the Jags would be much better off if they’d drafted a quarterback who would have completely flopped than they have been with Bortles.
Since drafting Bortles in 2014, the Jaguars have treated him like a franchise player worthy of the third overall selection. They’ve given him airtight job security, and in February handed him a contract extension as his rookie deal was about to expire. (If they hadn’t, they probably would have been on the hook to pay him $19 million in 2018, since he’d had wrist surgery in January and fifth-year player options are fully guaranteed in cases of injury.) Yet Bortles isn’t a franchise player—in fact, he’s barely been competent. But barely competent is competent nonetheless, and that competence has allowed Jacksonville to trick itself into thinking that Bortles is worth the many investments it’s made in him.
If Jacksonville had taken Manziel over Bortles, things would have turned out better in the long run. By 2016, the franchise would’ve known it needed a new quarterback. In 2017, the Jaguars wouldn’t have made the backward decision to spend a top-five selection on a running back in a league that has essentially rendered the position obsolete. Instead of taking Fournette, Jacksonville would have opted for Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes II, or Deshaun Watson—all of whom are varying degrees of already better than Bortles. All three have more team-friendly contract situations, as well as plenty of room to develop.
Think about these Jaguars, only with Mahomes as their quarterback. He likely wouldn’t be as successful without Andy Reid’s offensive scheme, but he is worlds more talented than Bortles. The Bortlesfly effect dictates that the Jaguars would have become a short-term laughingstock after selecting Manziel with their 2014 first-round pick, and they wouldn’t have made last season’s conference title game with a rookie QB at the helm. The future of a Mahomes-helmed Jaguars, though, would be ridiculously bright.
In this timeline, the Browns select Bortles, and Hue Jackson wins Coach of the Year for leading the 2017 Browns to a 6-10 campaign. The Good Place writers make Mendoza an Orlando Magic fan, which isn’t nearly as funny and prevents the show’s second season from getting green-lit. Kristen Bell is forced to act in a series explaining the backstory of the Gossip Girl narrator.
March 14, 2017
What Happened: The Jaguars did not sign a quarterback.
What Could Have Happened: The Jaguars sign Colin Kaepernick in free agency.
Kaepernick is significantly better than Bortles. This is true by virtually every statistical measure. During the three-year stretch from 2014 to 2016, when both QBs were in the NFL, Kaepernick recorded a better completion percentage, a superior touchdown-to-interception ratio, and a higher yards-per-pass-attempt average. And that’s before considering that Kap was one of the most devastating quarterback rushing threats in recent memory. Kaepernick’s biggest flaws as a QB were his tendency to get sacked (116 times from 2014 to 2016) and lose the football (nine lost fumbles from 2014 to ’16). But it’s Bortles who managed to lead the league in sacks taken twice (140 from 2014 to ’16) and fumbles (14 in 2015 alone; he lost 12 from 2014 to ’16). Bortles has thrown at least 13 interceptions in each of his four full seasons as an NFL starter and has already thrown eight this fall; in Kaepernick’s worst full season, 2014, he threw only 10.
Unfortunately, NFL teams have made the seemingly collective decision to ignore Kaepernick’s potential as a football player because he was the first and most famous player to protest systemic racial inequality in the United States by kneeling during the national anthem. Kap was accused of committing the unforgivable sin of bringing politics into sports, although in my eyes the people who mixed sports and politics are the ones who made personnel decisions based on Kaepernick’s opinions rather than his playing capability, choosing instead to keep giving hopeless goobers like Nathan Peterman chances to throw interceptions. (Peterman threw more picks in his first start than Kaepernick did in his entire final NFL season, but I digress.)
The Bortlesfly effect here is massive: The Jaguars would have made last season’s Super Bowl with Kaepernick leading the way. I know, I know: How unreasonable, to suggest that one of the last 10 quarterbacks to make the Super Bowl might have made the Super Bowl once again. Bortles wasn’t bad in the postseason, making the throws he had to during a divisional-round victory over the Steelers and playing effectively in the first half of the AFC championship game loss to the Patriots. He proved capable of playing mistake-free football and executing a game plan composed largely of conservative throws off of play-action.
Still, while Bortles wasn’t bad, Kap would’ve been better. A game-changer for Jacksonville was its ability to deploy Bortles as a runner, as he tallied 121 rushing yards over the Jaguars’ three postseason games. Kaepernick had 130 rushing yards in two different playoff games during his career, so I think he could’ve done well in this style of offense. And while Bortles played surprisingly mistake-free in the postseason, Kap was mistake-free for most of his career. Jacksonville would have beaten New England if it had signed Kaepernick as a free agent and started him over Bort.
I can’t fathom how dumb sports-talk radio would have been in the wake of a 2018 Kaepernick Super Bowl run. I suspect that every cable news station would have featured 24/7 Jaguars coverage, with breaking bulletins about the president’s 11 Jaguars-related tweets per day. The Super Bowl, already the most talked-about event in American sports, would transcend all boundaries of American life, resulting in the best ratings in decades. On top of that windfall, the NFL would have saved tens of millions of dollars by not fighting a collusion lawsuit. In this iteration of the Bortlesfly effect, Papa John would have voluntarily closed all of his stores by mid-January in a completely inexplicable counterprotest.
February 24, 2018
What Happened: The Jaguars finalized Bortles’s three-year, $54 million extension.
What Could Have Happened: The Jaguars don’t extend Bortles, and sign Teddy Bridgewater in free agency a few weeks later.
The Jaguars probably should have traded for Teddy Bridgewater, who was named NFL Rookie of the Year in Bortles’s rookie season, in August. Bridgewater put together a surprisingly good preseason for the Jets, who signed the former Vikings passer in March before subsequently drafting Sam Darnold and retaining veteran Josh McCown as Darnold’s mentor. The price for Bridgewater was affordable: New Orleans acquired him for a 2019 third-round pick.
But Jacksonville would’ve been even better off signing Bridgewater in free agency. The former Louisville star, who suffered a major knee injury two seasons ago, was a bargain; the Jets signed him to a one-year, $5 million deal. This would have represented a risk, since no one has seen Bridgewater play meaningful snaps since 2015. But I suspect that Bridgewater would be better than Bortles this season, and his smaller cap hit would have given the Jaguars additional flexibility to sign other talented players. The Jags would be leading the AFC South right now if they would have made this move.
I should note that Bridgewater intentionally signed a one-year deal this offseason as a bet on himself, hoping to prove that he could still play at a high level after his injury. In this alternate timeline, he’d cash in after leading Jacksonville deep into the playoffs, signing a contract as onerous as Bortles’s current one. The difference, of course, is that Bridgewater is potentially good at playing quarterback, while Bortles is certainly not.
In this reality, Bortles passes his offseason physical, is cut from the Jaguars, and signs a contract with the Cardinals. Sam Bradford, finally free from the demands of being a professional quarterback, retires and dedicates his life to Frisbee golf, preposterously wealthy and finally free. He discovers that he still sucks at making throws longer than 7 yards, which, unfortunately, is basically every throw in Frisbee golf.
October 28, 2018
What Will Happen: The Jaguars start Bortles against the Eagles in London.
What Could Happen: The Jaguars bench Bortles and name Kessler their full-time starting quarterback.
Kessler hasn’t played much in his three-year NFL career, with the majority of his statistics coming for the 2016 Browns. He started eight games as a rookie, and Cleveland lost all eight—but Kessler’s career numbers are still slightly better than Bortles’s from an efficiency perspective. Kessler has showed a dangerously high propensity for taking sacks (21 in nine 2016 games), yet if we compare his rookie numbers with Bortles’s abysmal rookie stats, they are significantly better. On Sunday, Kessler did this, which seems markedly cooler than anything Bortles is capable of:
I’m not willing to say that Kessler is better than Bortles. There’s no evidence to back that up. But it’s certainly possible that Kessler is better than Bortles, which is troubling considering that Kessler is a former Browns backup whom Jacksonville acquired in March for a conditional seventh-round pick—a return that implies the market value for Kessler was only marginally more than nothing—while Bortles is the Jaguars’ supposed franchise rock.
It’s encouraging that the Jags are considering playing somebody besides Bortles at quarterback. The only other time that the team briefly discussed benching Bortles was in the 2017 preseason, when there was speculation that Chad Henne might win the starting gig. Yet on Sunday, Jacksonville’s powers that be acknowledged that Bortles was not the player who presented the best path to victory. That’s significant.
But the Jaguars will change nothing. Bortles will remain their starting QB. And even if they do sub in Kessler, it will be too little too late. It’s hard to assemble a defense as loaded as Jacksonville’s, and what they have on that side of the ball won’t stay together forever. Plus, the Jags’ commitment to Bortles won’t end anytime soon. Next season his salary-cap hit is set to be $21 million. That’s crucial money the Jaguars could otherwise use to sign valuable players during this window for success. Instead, Jacksonville will put that cash toward the continued employment of a quarterback who may or may not be better than Cody Kessler.
We are too late for a Bortlesfly effect here. There were ample opportunities for the Jags to improve, and yet they kept heading down this ruinous path. At this point, they could trade for Eli Manning or Tyrod Taylor and it would only add to the already substantial amount of resources they have wasted by not fixing the Bortles problem earlier. It should be noted that the Jags can still achieve an impressive amount of success this season with either Kessler or Bortles at QB. They’re only a game out of the playoff picture in the dismal AFC South. But whatever happens, it will be worse than what would have happened had the Jaguars heeded the very obvious calls to change course before now.
That said, my calculations indicate that if the Jaguars start Kessler over Bortles on Sunday, it will completely reverse all human-caused climate change. It might not make the Jaguars better, but it’s worth a shot.