The Jaguars announced on Monday that they are benching Blake Bortles, ending Jacksonville’s bizarre, years-long run of propping up the league’s worst starting quarterback rather than admitting that Bortles was three children in a trench coat the whole time.
Cody Kessler will replace Bortles for the second time this season and start against the Colts on Sunday, according to the team. Bortles was removed from the Jags’ Week 5 game against the Chiefs after fumbling twice but was reinstalled as the starter the following week. This latest move, which comes just hours after the team fired offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and replaced him with quarterbacks coach Scott Milanovich, has a better chance of becoming permanent. But it’s likely too little and too late for the 3-8 Jaguars, who have missed the boat on their 2018 season, and maybe their title window too.
Had anyone running Jacksonville looked themselves in the mirror, there were plenty of moments in the past five years when the Jaguars could have admitted to themselves that Bortles would never reach the promise he brought as the third overall pick in 2014. He threw 69 touchdowns and 51 interceptions in his first three years, but the team was so uncompetitive that only five of those 69 touchdowns came while the Jaguars were ahead in a game. Bortles was so bad during this stretch that an NBC comedy decided it would be funny to make one of the dumbest characters in television history Bortles’s biggest fan. The QB’s mechanics were so bad that he changed his throwing motion entering 2017. Let me say that again: At 25 years old and with three NFL seasons under his belt, Bortles needed to change the way he threw a football. Despite that glaring, neon warning sign, the Jags decided after the 2016 season to pick up Bortles’s fifth-year option for the 2018 season for $20 million.
The new mechanics didn’t help. Before last season, Bortles almost lost the quarterback competition to Chad Henne, cornerback Jalen Ramsey was liking Instagram posts about replacing Bortles with a better QB, and his receivers wanted him to “get this shit in bounds, bro.”
Robert McClain on Allen Robinson. Plays him well, ball thrown too far out of bounds (unfortunately for one man too close to the sideline) pic.twitter.com/9iBQd0Iq03— PewterReport (@PewterReport) August 15, 2017
In 2017, the Jaguars went 10-6 and made the AFC championship game despite Bortles, not because of him. Their game plan was best described as trying to play quarterbackless football, and Hackett needed every trick in the book to get the Jags within one ticky-tacky pass interference call on A.J. Bouye of a berth in the Super Bowl. A wrist injury after the 2017 season meant Bortles’s 2018 money would’ve become fully guaranteed if he couldn’t pass a physical before the new league year, so to maintain flexibility and save some cap space in 2018, the team extended Bortles for three years and $54 million ($26.5 million guaranteed) in February. Nearly nine months to the day later, Bortles was benched, and Hackett, who was an imperfect coordinator but worked near-miracles with Bortles last year, was fired, as this year’s squad ranks 28th in points scored after coming in fifth in 2017.
“I guess the football gods had it out for me,” Hackett told NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport on Monday morning.
Jacksonville’s elite 2017 defense has been exposed this year as simply elite at protecting leads rather than playing wire-to-wire defense, but it’s still one of the most talented defensive groups in football. The Jaguars also have a strong offensive line; three quality running backs in Leonard Fournette, Carlos Hyde, and T.J. Yeldon; and solid young receivers in Keelan Cole, Donte Moncrief, and Dede Westbrook. But the team is all but eliminated from the 2018 postseason, and things will be even harder for Kessler after the team announced All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell will land on injured reserve. A lot of their core players are set for free agency or significant raises soon, but neither Bortles nor Kessler is likely to be the answer in 2019 or beyond. This puts Jacksonville in a fresh purgatory: Every aspect of the team is built to compete now, except for the quarterback position, which isn’t competitive at all.