Let it sink in for a moment: Blake Bortles is becoming a franchise quarterback.
As late as Week 5 of this NFL season, those words would not have been uttered by anyone. Fast forward a couple months, however, and that is precisely the case. In one of the NFL’s more unlikely individual – and team – turnarounds, the former No. 3 overall pick of the playoff-bound, 10-6 Jacksonville Jaguars has morphed from an incessant punch line into the orchestrator of the league’s sixth-ranked offense.
“Who would have ever thought?” first-year offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett told Yahoo Sports. To be sure, Bortles’ rapid ascension through the quarterback ranks is in large part traced to the tutelage of Hackett.
“You see Blake not only running the show, but commanding it,” Hackett says. “I have been more aggressive [as a play-caller] because Blake has allowed me to be. It’s so much more fun.”
Bortles ranks 11th in total passing yards, while tossing 21 touchdown passes, which slots him in between Cam Newton and Matt Ryan, the league’s previous two MVPs. Bortles’ improvement begs the question: What exactly has changed?
Hackett, to his credit, has deployed an intelligent offense that highlights his quarterback’s strengths (athletic, big arm, effective on the run) while minimizing his weaknesses (decision making, turnover prone, inaccurate).
In many ways, it’s a similar approach to how Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay has used Jared Goff this season. The 31-year-old head coach has infused the Rams’ playbook with a series of bunched formations, simpler reads and an onslaught of ways to creatively get Todd Gurley, an MVP candidate, the football.
The Jags may not mirror the Rams’ offense, but Hackett’s creativity – think crossing patters, pseudo mesh concepts, along with designed bootlegs and rollouts to the right with a slew of targets – has supercharged the offense. Plus, the Jags have similar personnel, namely with Rookie of the Year candidate, running back Leonard Fournette. He may not be the pass-catching threat that Gurley is, but Fournette is capable of hitting the home run at any point – he has the two fastest runs of any player in the league this season – while also controlling the line of scrimmage.
Blake Bortles has more passing TDs than Matt Ryan, fewer INTs than Russell Wilson, a better QBR than Cam Newton, more rushing yards than Marcus Mariota, more passing yards than Derek Carr and a higher completion percentage than Carson Wentz. Conclusion: 2017 is insane. #Jaguars
— Jordan Schultz (@Schultz_Report) December 21, 2017
Keep in mind too, that Hackett knows Bortles about as well as anyone. Before taking over as OC, he was the team’s quarterbacks coach since 2015, often times enduring the growing pains of the Jags’ former first-round pick.
“Blake has not been an efficient quarterback,” Hackett says of Bortles’ first three professional seasons. “His understanding of everything [this year] has just allowed you to be naturally more aggressive. Just take the [49ers game]. He throws three picks and his reaction to how he handled everything is so different. He used to go in the tank. Now he has the mechanism to move on and throw for 288 yards and two touch’s [Bortles finished the game with 382 yards]. It’s how you react to that adversity.”
What’s more, Bortles, who is still just 25, has upped his game despite losing Pro Bowl receiver Allen Robinson – who tied for the NFL lead in touchdowns in 2015 – to an ACL in Week 1, as well as Allen Hurns, who has been injured since Week 10. Often times the Jags trot out five rookies alongside Bortles, including offensive tackle Cam Robinson and a trio of receivers in Keelan Cole, Dede Westbrook and Jaydon Mickens.
Cole, undrafted out of FCS Western Kentucky, has been a huge beneficiary of Bortles’ improvement, particularly with the deep ball. The speedster is second in the entire league with a Madden-like 17.8 yards per catch. Like Hackett, he too marvels at the quality under center and the impact it’s had on moral.
“He’s excelling,” Cole tells Yahoo. “He watches extra film. … I’ve always seen how focused he was. I’ve always seen that confidence.
“We’re a close team. We’re more like a family than a team.”
Equally important to his newfound success is how Bortles has cut down on the picks, reducing them from 16 last season to a career-low 13 this campaign, while displaying improved pocket poise and stellar accuracy on intermediate throws.
“He’s not forcing something in there,” Hackett adds. “If you look at his overall season, he has been really good. … Nobody respects Blake. Nobody respects our offense. They think, ‘We gotta stop Leonard [Fournette] and Chris Ivory,’ so we’re still seeing a lot of eight-man boxes.”
Hackett is dead-on. According to NFL NextGen stats, no team in pro football faces more stacked boxes than Jacksonville when Fournette is in the backfield.
But having the rookie back in the game is not always the baseline for Bortles’ prowess. Case in point: With Fournette injured for a 45-7 rout of Houston in Week 15, the former Central Florida standout completed all three of his passes that traveled 20 or more yards in the air, per Pro Football Focus, for 114 yards. On the 16 throws when he wasn’t pressured, he completed 14 balls for 230 yards, two touchdowns and a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating.
Additionally, the 6-foot-5, 236-pounder has become a devastating runner. His 6.3 average per carry is the best among active players with at least 200 carries, and the fourth-best clip in NFL history, behind names like Michael Vick and Randall Cunningham. It’s yet another reason why the Jags won their first division title since 1999 and earned their first postseason birth since 2007.
After finishing 24th last season, Bortles now ranks 14th in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), which measures a quarterback’s value. It’s not perfect, but it’s a considerable boost. His 4.1 percent clip slots him ahead of marquee quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott and 2015 MVP Cam Newton. Additionally, Bortles’ VOA – the so-called “cousin” stat of DVOA – ranks him ahead of two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Wilson.
Plus, it’s not as if he’s dinking and ducking his way down the field, which he did in 2016 while accumulating the third-lowest yards per attempt total. In 2017, he’s up to a 7.05 YPA, which is slightly ahead of Rodgers, hovering around the middle of the league.
“How efficient we’ve been has been unbelievable,” Hackett says. “The whole thing is on the quarterback’s shoulders. I think now he’s seeing the whole picture, simplifying the stuff down. … Everybody is rolling.”
With Fournette toting the rock, Bortles has also found his rhythm going heavy play-action, with roughly a quarter of his dropbacks involving play-fakes, the seventh-highest total in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. More importantly is the accuracy, which isn’t perfect but shows progression — he’s completing a career-best 60.2 percent — while ranking fifth in “turnover-worthy” throws, per PFF. Better yet, Bortles has been lights out inside the 20s, amassing 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
All of this seems a far cry from just a few months ago when he endured a five-interception practice and a wretched preseason game on Monday Night Football that prompted head coach Doug Marrone to open up the job to career backup Chad Henne. It’s an even further cry from the previous three seasons, when only the Chargers’ gunslinger Phillip Rivers tossed more interceptions than Bortles.
As things stand today, it’s worth noting that the Jaguars picked up Bortles’ fifth-year option in May, an option worth a healthy $19 million, and one that becomes fully guaranteed on March 14. At their core, the Jags remain a defensive juggernaut and run-oriented team whose 50.6 percent of running plays is the most of any team in the NFL. But having an effective quarterback running the show clearly behooves the ground attack.
Still not sold? Consider this: Three months into the season, Bortles ranked 21st in Total QBR. His quality play however, has buoyed that clip up to 12th, ahead of Kirk Cousins, as well as the aforementioned Goff and Newton. More importantly, at 55.4, it’s a significantly better number than what Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger all posted in seasons in which they won the Super Bowl. And, just as those championship teams boasted elite defenses, so too do the Jaguars.
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Follow Jordan Schultz on Twitter @Schultz_Report
Jordan Schultz is an NFL, NBA and NCAAB insider/analyst for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at Jordan.Schultz@Oath.com.