When the Jacksonville Jaguars selected UCF's Blake Bortles with the third overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft, they'd done their homework, and they were sure of one thing: They didn't want him to start in his first season. Bortles came into the pros with a lot of potential but also clear limitations, and the Jags preferred to keep him under wraps until he was ready. That changed in Week 3, when head coach Gus Bradley benched starter Chad Henne in favor of the rookie, and at that point, Bradley deemed the change permanent. Bortles threw a pick-six to Indianapolis cornerback Greg Toler in that first game, which started a trend that has continued through this season. After two of them against the Dolphins last Sunday and one against the Steelers in Week 5, Bortles now has had four interceptions returned for touchdowns in just five NFL starts. His 12 interceptions overall lead the league, and they have come on just 208 passing attempts.
Bortles is playing on a very young team, with a sketchy offensive line and targets who are still trying to figure it out. In a more experienced system, he could be managed within the overall structure, but the Jags have little choice but to throw Bortles to the wolves and hope it doesn't ruin him. Which raises the question: How much is too much when it comes to letting young quarterbacks learn by doing?
The pick-six to Dolphins safety Louis Delmas was symptomatic of Bortles' difficulties in reading coverage.
(H/T: Next Level Sports)
Jacksonville lined up at the Miami 28-yard line against a defense playing man with a blitz look. The interesting aspect of Miami's coverage was that Delmas was playing right over Cecil Shorts in the slot, which is an unusual look for a safety. When Bortles rolled left out of play-action, he expected to see either Shorts open on a quick in-and-out route, or tight end Nic Jacobs, who had crossed over from the right side. But with defensive end Olivier Vernon in his face, Bortles failed to read that his targets were covered and compounded his read error with a mechanical failure: He threw too quickly off a shaky base.
"I wouldn’t say so," Bortles said after the loss, when asked if overconfidence in his arm was at the root of his mistakes. "I think that obviously I feel pretty confident in the fact that I can make a lot of throws. I think that obviously there are times where you’ve got to be able say that’s not smart, that’s not the right choice, no matter how confident or good you feel about it. There’s obviously situations and scenarios where it’s better just to check the ball down or to scramble than to throw a pick."
One such situation and scenario came against the Steelers in Week 5, when Bortles threw a horribly ill-advised pick-six to cornerback Brice McCain.
(H/T: Bleacher Report)
Pittsburgh played man coverage with a single-high safety and a revolving blitz look pre-snap. The Steelers faked double pressure over the A-gap before dropping into coverage (a Dick LeBeau specialty), and Bortles lost his bearings. The worst part was that he checked out of a run play based on the pre-snap look.
"I just saw guys walk up," Bortles said after that loss. "It wasn’t a good decision. We could have kept the run on and it wouldn’t have been a bad play. It would have given us a shot and it’s something that I can’t make that mistake again and definitely can’t check out of play into a pick-six."
The good news is that Bortles' teammates and coaches believe in him -- and they really have no choice. The Jags weren't going to contend anyway this season, and they're best served by balancing the need for Bortles to learn with the requirement that his errant decision-making must be mitigated by throws that are easier to make.
"Blake is a fighter, he’ll be fine," Shorts said following the Dolphins game. "I believe that he’s going to bounce back in weeks to come. He’s a hard worker, he’s a humble guy. He’s hard on himself, but we all make mistakes. I’m sure that there’s things on the offensive line and receivers that we could’ve all done better to help the offense, so if he throws an interception, it’s on all of us, not just him. As an offense we’ve got to find ways to make plays, and when we’re in their territory, get in the end zone, get field goals, get something. We can’t leave the defense out to dry."
Bradley is an eternal optimist who has the backing of his front office -- everyone involved knows that this is a long-term project.
“In the beginning when Blake and I talked, we said there’s going to be so-called failures where things happen," Bradley said this week. "For me, it’s, 'They happened but let’s grow from this. We have to grow and we have to move forward from this.' So his mentality, his attitude and not make the same mistakes repeatedly. That’s part of growth, too. I love his attitude and mentality, but making mistakes,I think we need to look at it and find out what are his strengths. We are learning what his strengths are, what his weaknesses are and to keep him more in his strength area.”
Compare and contrast Bortles' issues with the performance that Oakland Raiders rookie quarterback Derek Carr has put together. Carr was taken with the 36th overall pick out of Fresno State and started from Day 1 of the regular season. The rookie forced the issue when he threw three touchdown passes against the Seahawks in the preseason finale, including some very impressive deep passes against a Seattle defense that played most of its starters early in the game.
With a better offensive line but equally nebulous targets and the worst run game in the NFL, Carr has been by far the NFL's most impressive first-year quarterback in 2014, leading all comers in every meaningful category. His Pro Football Focus passer rating of 83.51 is comparable to the rookie ratings of Mike Glennon in 2013, Ryan Tannehill and Andrew Luck in 2012, Andy Dalton and Cam Newton in 2011, and Joe Flacco in 2008. It's far above Bortles' rating of 70.96, and Carr has proven to be a far more reliable player through the first half of his first season. And this is on a team with a front office very much in flux and one head coach already out the door in Dennis Allen, who was canned after the Raiders lost to the Dolphins in London in late September.
Bortles will have no organizational problems to deal with after his team's loss to Miami, but in the long term, he's the latest example of how quarterback analysis can be a complete crapshoot at the best of times. Would the Jags take Carr instead of Bortles now, given the Raiders standout's relatively low instances of rookie mistakes? That's something only they know.