At 11:45 p.m. on Aug. 17, many thought Doug Marrone was making the biggest bet of his first year as Jaguars coach.
Ticked about the lack of offensive production in general and the shoddy quarterback play in particular, Marrone swung open the doors for Chad Henne to storm through and replace Blake Bortles.
“It’s right up there for grabs,” Marrone said after the loss to Tampa Bay. “Either person can take it.”
Henne started the Carolina game, but two days later, on Aug. 26, Marrone named Bortles the starter for Sunday’s opener at Houston.
Meet the new Jaguars quarterback, same as the old Jaguars quarterback.
Bortles didn’t so much take the job as he was awarded it.
A seamless off-season – he trained in California to refine his mechanics and adapted well to offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s playbook – gave way to a tumultuous training camp full of outside noise and inconsistent practice performances.
The Jaguars spent the off-season making financial gambles and went somewhat against the grain by drafting tailback Leonard Fournette fourth overall. But bypassing quarterback in the draft (at any point) was risky because if the Jaguars give up on Bortles during the season, a 2018 starting option won’t be available for a test drive.
If Bortles fails, the Jaguars will have to start over at quarterback.
If Bortles succeeds, he will shock the NFL and apply pressure on the Jaguars to make a decision about him. To do that, though, he must cut down on the interceptions (51 in 46 games), improve his completion percentage (58.8 for his career) and win more games (11-34 record).
“Definitely for him, it’s still proving he’s a franchise quarterback,” Henne said. “He has to play well and he has to lead this team.”
Bortles will be working with his third offensive coordinator (Hackett) and quarterbacks coach (Scott Milanovich) apiece, be protected by his third left tackle (rookie Cam Robinson) and be handing off to fourth different feature back (Fournette).
“I feel comfortable and confident in this system,” Bortles said. “I feel comfortable with the guys I’m playing with.”
Bortles does have some skill around him.
Big things are expected of Fournette. Allen Robinson is only two years removed from 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns. Allen Hurns could be an effective slot receiver. And Marqise Lee and rookie Dede Westbrook bring speed and big-play potential.
From 2005-14, the NFL drafted 11 quarterbacks in the top three. Bortles’ 11 wins through three seasons is tied with Alex Smith (11-19 for San Francisco in 2005-07) and more than only one player (Oakland’s JaMarcus Russell was 7-18 from 2007-09).
Bortles’ 69 touchdowns are second-most among the group, trailing only Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck (86 in from 2012-14), but his 51 interceptions are tied for the most with Mark Sanchez (2009-11 with the New York Jets).
The lack of a winning track record will make it tough for Bortles not to look over his shoulder at Henne, something he has never had to do since debuting in September 2014. Marrone won’t be afraid to make an in-game change or pull the plug on Bortles if he isn’t effective early in the year.
“You can look at it or sit there and say, ‘It’s happened once already, it can happen again,’ and let that consume your thoughts,” Bortles said of getting the hook. “Or you can say, ‘I’ve had to go through this once and there’s no way I’m ever going to let them do it to me again.’ I’m going to play as hard as I can to help this team win so I don’t have to go through that again.”
In mid-June, Milanovich said of feeling the pressure: “That’s part of playing the position. No matter where you’re at in your career, there is going to be some level of stress. I don’t know one quarterback that’s not under pressure. It’s part of what guys sign up for when you play quarterback.”
One of the worst things the Jaguars could encounter this year is a non-injury revolving door at quarterback.
Only five times in the franchise’s 22-year history have two quarterbacks started at least four games in a season. The current Jaguars decision makers are probably unaware that during the team’s last two playoff appearances – 2005 and ’07 – they had two quarterbacks start at least four games.
In 2005, Byron Leftwich started 11 games and David Garrard five games during a 12-4 season. Leftwich sustained an ankle injury, Garrard finished the regular season and Leftwich returned for the playoff loss to New England. Two years later, Garrard started 12 games and Quinn Gray four games during a 10-6 season. Garrard missed time with an injury.
Credit Bortles for one thing during his three-year Jaguars career: He’s been durable. Since entering the 2014 Week 3 game against Indianapolis after halftime, he has played 3,065 of 3,066 offensive snaps, only missing the final play of last year’s first half at Detroit. He has gotten up after each of his 140 sacks and played with foot (2014) and shoulder (2016) injuries.
Now only if his production could match his durability.
A key to Bortles thriving is re-discovering the explosive pass play.
In 2015, Bortles led the NFL with 72 completions of at least 20 yards; last year, that total plummeted to 53, tied for 17th in the league.
On passes that traveled at least 16 yards in the air per the Times-Union’s game charting, Bortles was only 33 of 108 (30.6 completion percentage) for 799 yards, three touchdowns and seven interceptions.
If Fournette can spark the running game, that will lead to play action and an extra defender in the box. If Hurns, Lee or Westbrook can shine early, it will lead to more single coverage for Robinson. And then it will be up to Bortles. He must build on the good plays and move on from the bad plays. If he can’t do that, it will be over for him.
“To me, every day you show up, it’s an open competition,” Bortles said. “You get promised the first snap of practice but after that, if you don’t perform well, the next guy goes in. That’s how I grew up playing. I understand I have a job to do.”