Now they’re two of the worst teams in the NFL. They have identical 3-7 records, are in the bottom four in points scored and have a combined two victories since September ended (both by the Bills).
Yet there’s at least some optimism in Buffalo because the Bills invested a high draft pick in Josh Allen and believe he can develop into a franchise quarterback. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the Jaguars’ decision in 2014 to do that with Blake Bortles hasn’t worked, and the franchise might have to start over — again.
Allen hasn’t been great as a rookie — 54 percent completion for 832 yards and two touchdowns with five interceptions — but he led the Bills to a 27-6 upset in Minnesota in Week 3, and the 6-foot-5, 237-pounder clearly has the arm talent and mobility to thrive in the NFL. Allen has missed the Bills’ past four games with an elbow injury but is on track to play Sunday, when the teams meet at 1 p.m. ET at New Era Field.
“From my eyes, he seems very healthy. Very rejuvenated,” receiver Zay Jones said. “Confident in himself. I see a high-caliber leader, a playmaker.”
Bortles hasn’t had a very good season, either, and his inconsistent play is one of the main reasons the Jaguars’ season has fallen apart. He has been able to sporadically carry the team (he was the NFL’s top-rated passer in the first three games of December 2017) but generally needs everything around him to go perfectly to have sustained success.
Bortles was coming off the worst season of his career when owner Shad Khan hired Tom Coughlin to be the Jaguars’ executive vice president of football operations and gave him final say over all football matters. Coughlin evaluated Bortles, spoke with general manager Dave Caldwell (who drafted Bortles third overall in 2014) and coach Doug Marrone, and opted to stick with the former UCF standout. He chose running back Leonard Fournette fourth overall in the 2017 draft instead of quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has led the Houston Texans to seven consecutive victories and first place in the AFC South.
That decision appeared to pay off. Bortles had the best season of his career in 2017, throwing 21 touchdown passes and only 13 interceptions, but he benefited from the NFL’s top-ranked run game and an elite defense that finished second in the league in sacks (55) and turnovers (33) and scored seven touchdowns. Bortles made some key throws in the Jaguars’ three playoff games — including a fourth-down TD pass in a 10-3 victory over the Bills — and nearly engineered an upset in New England in the AFC Championship Game.
That was good enough to convince Coughlin to sign Bortles to a three-year contract extension. It might end up being one of Coughlin’s biggest mistakes.
Bortles led the team to a 3-1 start this season, with a victory against New England in Week 2, despite having Fournette on the field for only a half in two of those games because of a right hamstring injury. Then came a five-turnover day in a loss to Kansas City and seven points and just 204 yards in a blowout loss in Dallas. Bortles fumbled twice against Houston and was benched early in the second half.
Those were the first three games of what is now a six-game losing streak. The offense has been borderline inept at times and averaged just 14.7 points per game in that stretch. Look at last Sunday’s loss to Pittsburgh: The Jaguars, who blew a 16-0 lead, managed just 57 yards of total offense after taking a 9-0 lead with 3:37 remaining in the first half.
What makes that even worse is the Jaguars put together an 80-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter. Then they totaled 9 yards and had one turnover in their four drives that began in the fourth quarter.
Bortles doesn’t deserve 100 percent of the blame. The offensive line has been hammered by injuries — the Jaguars are on their fourth left tackle, center Brandon Linder is done for the season with a knee injury, and right guard A.J. Cann left the game because of a hamstring injury — and there’s a dearth of playmakers.
Fournette missed six games. Top receiver Marqise Lee suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason. Keelan Cole, who led the Jaguars with 748 yards receiving as an undrafted rookie in 2017, has been benched after dropping five passes and losing two fumbles in October. Donte Moncrief disappears for stretches, and Dede Westbrook has had more than 38 yards receiving just four times this season.
Still, a team should be able to lean on its franchise quarterback when everything else is going wrong, and the Jaguars haven’t done that. They didn’t trust Bortles at the most critical point in Sunday’s game: third-and-5 at the Jacksonville 30-yard line with 1:54 to play. A first down forces the Steelers to start using timeouts and all but assures the Jaguars the victory.
Marrone said he wanted to throw but didn’t trust the protection, so they opted to call a read-option. Bortles handed the ball to Fournette, who gained a yard. Had he kept the ball, he could have run for a first down, but that’s not the point: The Jaguars didn’t trust Bortles to make a play and complete a short pass to seal an upset victory at home.
One possible reason: Bortles has turned the ball over 91 times since he entered the league in 2014. That’s more than any other player (Eli Manning is next with 82). He has also thrown the most interceptions (72) of any quarterback in that span.
“Blake has a lot of things he’s got to improve on,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. “He knows that. He needs to be able to take his shots when he can. He needs to keep protecting the ball, and that’s always a fine line with a quarterback because you don’t want to turn the ball over a bunch, but you still want to be aggressive and take your shots. That’s something that he just has to continue to develop.”
Bortles is in his fifth season and still struggling with that. It’s his identity as a quarterback, and the Jaguars know it. That’s why they built the offense around Fournette and the power-run game and used Bortles as a complementary piece and only seldom asked him to carry the team. It worked in 2017, when everything went perfectly, but things are rarely perfect for long in the NFL — as the Jaguars have found out in 2018.
It might be time to start over — again.