Blake Bortles isn’t always going to have it this easy, not in the week-to-week, Jekyll-and-Hyde enterprise of the NFL. The league isn’t built for teams to win games by an average margin of 26.7 points, as the Jaguars have done three times behind a dominant, ball-hawking defense and a Leonard Fournette-powered running attack.
Sure, the Jaguars’ ground-centric formula is working just fine for now, with Bortles averaging fewer pass attempts (27.0) per game than any full-time starter. But no NFL franchise can expect to keep winning without its quarterback shouldering a bigger burden over a 16-game season.
Sooner or later, the Jaguars will have to depend on Bortles’ right arm to win tight games. There’s going to be weeks where the defense isn’t providing him three or four turnovers, where Fournette and Chris Ivory struggle to move the chains. So the Jaguars will need Bortles to do the heavy lifting to get in the end zone or field-goal range on the game’s last possession.
Can No. 5 deliver in that situation, especially when history suggests it’s not his forte? Bortles is 8-18 in one-score games, losing 11 of his last 13. The truth is every team’s fortunes over a whole season tend to rise or fall on their success in those situations.
In the Jaguars’ seven winning seasons, quarterbacks Mark Brunell, Byron Leftwich and David Garrard combined for a 44-20 record in games decided by eight or less points. In 13 losing seasons, the Jaguars went 43-69 in one-possession games. In two .500 seasons, they went 6-9.
Translation: it’s impossible to win consistently in the NFL without a quarterback who, more often than not, can orchestrate a fourth-quarter comeback or shine in game-deciding moments.
If Bortles expects to have a future in Jacksonville beyond 2017, this is the one element on his resume that must show substantial improvement. Now that the Jaguars have the NFL’s top-ranked rushing offense and lead in takeaways with 15, there’s no reason for Bortles to not have better success pulling out close games.
“I don’t worry a whole lot about his history, I’ve always judged Blake on my time with him,” said Jaguars’ first-year quarterback coach Scott Milanovich. “He’s worked hard, he’s improving, his accuracy is improving. But things like [winning tight games] come over the course of time of having success in those situations. Blake understands that. You have to earn the right to be considered a clutch player.
“There’s going to be a couple games where we have to put up some more points and be more aggressive [passing]. We’ll see if we’re able to do that. We haven’t had that opportunity really yet. We’ll find out.”
Sunday’s home game against the Los Angeles Rams — ranked in the top-five in points per game (30.4), total offense (382.0 yards), pass offense (271.2 yards), third-down efficiency and least sacks allowed per pass play — might well be that moment where the Jaguars need Bortles to match an opponent’s offensive proficiency and take more chances through the air.
While the defense and run game has carried the Jaguars, the unanswered question remains whether the quarterback with a 58.5 completion percentage is accurate enough to make big throws when games hang in the balance.
It didn’t happen in a crushing 23-20 overtime loss to the New York Jets, where three passes from Bortles after a first-and-goal at the 6 in the last 100 seconds of regulation couldn’t get the Jaguars into the end zone. On three possessions in overtime, the only first down came on a Jets’ pass interference as Bortles went 0-for-5 passing.
Since the Jaguars are hell-bent on featuring their ground attack with a run-pass ratio of 56-44, it begs this question: will that make it harder for Bortles to deliver when time constraints force him to win the game through the air?
“I think it’s guys that are comfortable being in a no-huddle offense,” Bortles said of winning in game-ending, hurry-up moments. “I think it’s guys that are comfortable throwing the football, moving the ball down the field, doing stuff like that. So I think when that situation comes up, we’ll be able to transition and go from a team that likes to run the ball, pound it, to a team that can move it and throw the ball down the field.”
Of course, players and coaches express confidence in Bortles’ ability to come through in the clutch, despite evidence to the contrary.
“When that time comes, he’s going to have to perform,” said offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. “Right now, we have the ability to run the ball and we’re going to continue to do that. And then we’re going to take our chances [passing] when we can. I think Blake will be good.”
“Blake will be fine, I’m not worried about that,” added tight end Marcedes Lewis. “Good teams find different ways to win. It’s not going to be the same every week. Who knows what it’ll be this week or the week after that. You can’t press about it. You can’t think about it too much.”
But you can bet by the time the 2017 season is over, if not now, Jaguars’ front-office czar Tom Coughlin will be giving that plenty of thought. Even if the Jaguars go 9-7 and make the playoffs for the first time in a decade, Coughlin isn’t going to automatically pick up Bortles’ $19 million fifth-year option without being convinced he can transform this franchise into a Super Bowl contender.
Bortles has to start making his case now, by showing the Jaguars they can win games on more than just a physical running game and stalwart defense. As challenging as things are without top receiver Allen Robinson, it’s imperative for Bortles to make defenses pay for those eight-man boxes and win games with his arm.
“He’ll break through and then the confidence will grow and I think it’ll help his whole game,” said Milanovich.
It’s pretty obvious by now the Jaguars have their best football team in a long time. Just imagine how far they could go with a clutch quarterback.
Gene.email@example.com: (904) 359-4540