There was, briefly, a case for Blake Bortles. You had to squint and you couldn’t think about it for long, but it was there. It was 2017, a season that feels like it happened 100 years ago. It was the year that produced a Buffalo Bills playoff berth months before they became a national punch line. FiveThirtyEight declared the passing boom over with the biggest boom ever just around the corner. The Jaguars won with a hole at quarterback, the last season in which that was possible. Nick Foles won the Super Bowl. We’ll explain the events of 2017 in the same way we explain how Crash won Best Picture in 2006: You just had to be there. With the right defense, the right salary cap number, flawless execution from everyone around him, sure, Bortles could suffice. What is beyond doubt is that the moment is passed and the Jaguars are left with Bortles on a big salary and no plan at quarterback. The decision to bring him back as starter this season on a new contract was dated almost immediately. The NFL changed seemingly overnight and was no longer a league in which Bortles could take a team to within a half-quarter of the Super Bowl. In 2018, the Jaguars look like they showed up to a Formula 1 race with a Ford Explorer.
Bortles was benched on Monday in favor of Cody Kessler. Coach Doug Marrone said, “I’m making this change to give us an opportunity to win a football game,” which is notable since Kessler probably doesn’t do that any more than Bortles, making this a statement move instead of a functional football move. It’s saying: Kessler is not good, but he’s not Bortles.
This is probably the end of a short, unhappy era, one that started nine months ago when Bortles signed a three-year deal that signaled the Jaguars’ commitment. Couple this with their total lack of interest in bringing in competition for Bortles—no Teddy Bridgewater, not even A.J. McCarron—and you start to realize where this all went wrong. In a season of teams going all in, when the Rams and Saints and Vikings pushed their chips in the middle of the table by stacking stars, the Jaguars went all in on the guy with the 59 percent completion percentage. In a year dominated by Jared Goff, Patrick Mahomes II, and Drew Brees, the Jaguars are a team out of step with modern football, and it shows. It’s hard to imagine the Jaguars looking at this season—they are now 3-8 after a worst-case-scenario loss to Josh Allen and the Bills—and thinking Bortles should come back in 2019. He’d have $16.5 million in dead money next year if he were cut. Bortles’s offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett, was fired on Monday, the third such coordinator Bortles has seen fired since his arrival in 2014. There are other problems in Jacksonville: The defense is tied for eighth in scoring defense after finishing second last year. Jalen Ramsey, one of the best cornerbacks in football in 2017, looks mortal in 2018. They are riddled with injuries. The Bortles plan was going to work only if everything were as perfect in 2018 as it was in 2017, a ludicrously flawed plan in a league where nothing lasts long. It is not Hackett’s or Bortles’s fault that the defense isn’t as good; it’s the Jaguars’ fault that they designed a team where the offense was doomed if the defense regressed even a little bit. Bortles was bitcoin, a bright trend at the end of 2017 that looked, against all odds, like something viable. Check either’s value now.
If you are unfamiliar with Bortles—impossible as that may seem—he’s the former third overall pick of the 2014 draft. He’s become the butt of jokes from a variety of sources, ranging from Ted Cruz to the popular NBC sitcom The Good Place. He has never been a good quarterback. His career numbers lump him in with David Carr, Joey Harrington, Trent Dilfer, and Mark Sanchez. What he has been, in spots, is a guy who could do just enough to ride a historically good defense to wins. In hindsight it seems like a bad decision to commit to the quarterback who was proof that you could win with a bad quarterback. He was throwing the ball as little as possible and it was working. The Jaguars not only ran away with the AFC South, but Bortles started throwing the ball more without turning it over. It is too strong to say he looked good, but he looked extremely not bad for weeks at a time. The Jaguars won two playoff games and should have beaten the Patriots in Foxborough in the AFC title game, blowing a 20-10 fourth-quarter lead.
If you’re looking for evidence that quarterback play matters, feel free to consult basically any game in the history of the NFL. The most recent example is the 2018 Jaguars, who have wasted their franchise’s considerable roster talent by experimenting with the idea that the position can be smoothed out of the game. In the process, they’ve probably shut the door on one of the most promising championship windows in the NFL. They spent $50 million on just their defensive line this season, almost $1.5 million more than any other team. They hit on more free-agent signings than just about any team in recent memory, but they spent so much that they probably have a limited championship window. Soon they will have to start shedding talent for cap space, which has been constrained further by their quarterback plan. Roster talent without a quarterback isn’t a strategy.
There have been quarterbacks worse than Bortles; he did not invent being bad, but he might be the most frustrating in recent times. The Jaguars didn’t draft Patrick Mahomes II or Deshaun Watson because they wanted to build a running game around Bortles. They passed on Khalil Mack, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr., and Aaron Donald, among others, in order to draft him. There are dozens of what-if scenarios with the Jaguars and basically all of them include being better than they currently are.
Jacksonville’s defense was probably the most fun unit of 2017. Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye, and Ramsey were among the best at their position all year. The Jaguars were historically good in perhaps the last year defense truly mattered. The final four teams in last year’s playoffs were in the top five in scoring defense, the first time that’s occurred since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. Of the four most dominant teams of this season—the Rams, Saints, Chiefs, and Patriots—none rank in the top 10 in scoring defense.
There are 22 quarterbacks with a passer rating over 90 in 2018, double the number from five years ago, the season before Bortles entered the league. There were three in 1993. This was the year the Jaguars were rolling with Bortles. Even in a down season, Bortles was on pace for more yards than Terry Bradshaw ever threw for, so there are periods in NFL history in which Bortles would be passable as a starting quarterback. This is not one of them. If you are going to carry Bortles on a roster, you have to entertain the possibility he won’t work out. This is obvious when you see some of his errant passes and—despite his success at UCF and his high draft status—that he’s simply not that talented. The Jaguars signed him to the extension in part because they were already paying him $19 million as part of his fifth-year option and it helped lower his cap hit this year. But they could have brought in a better backup. They could have drafted a quarterback. They could have signed a wide receiver better than Donte Moncrief for $7 million. Bortles failed and the people around him failed. That is how you get to 3-8 10 months after almost making the Super Bowl.
Before last season’s playoffs, I spoke with Bortles’s family, his friends, his teammates, and the now-fired Hackett and came away with the impression that Bortles did not care about any of the criticism levied at him. Everyone saw the jokes, and everyone cared except Bortles. His father told me he’d “love” to visit some of his son’s critics, and Blake would shrug it off and tell him not to go. The criticism is not going to let up now. Bortles is going to get ripped because he didn’t play well, and that’s certainly fair, but it’s worth asking what Tom Coughlin was doing with Bortles in the first place. The Bortles plan was always flawed. The Jaguars learned the wrong lessons from last season, which was one of the weirdest in memory. Blake Bortles is a joke again, and that’s deserved, but save some laughter for the people who put him in this position.