Charlie Taaffe had a first-hand view of Blake Bortles’s rise to stardom. He also has been paying close attention in the years since, as it’s all crumbled.
Taaffe was the offensive coordinator at UCF during Bortles’s three seasons there (2011–13), which culminated in the best year ever for the program—a 12–1 record, a top-10 ranking and a thrilling 52–42 Fiesta Bowl victory over Baylor. Bortles that season was named the American Athletic Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year, and had he returned for the ’14 campaign, he would have challenged Daunte Culpepper and Ryan Schneider atop most of Central Florida’s program passing records.
Instead, Bortles entered the 2014 draft, where he was taken at No. 3 overall by the Jaguars. And now all that success feels like it came ages ago.
“The curse of being picked early is you go to a team that’s not very good, which obviously was the case in Jacksonville,” says Taaffe, who now runs the Orlando branch of QB Country, a training and development school for quarterbacks of all ages. “They said they were going to be patient with him initially, then by the fifth game or so he got thrown into the fire. Pretty solid second year, but the past year things kind of fell apart on him, as the whole organization fell apart. He obviously took a big step back.”
The breaking point for Bortles’s time as the starting QB in Jacksonville might have arrived (it it hadn’t already) in a preseason loss to the Bucs last week. Early in the second quarter, Bortles had a shot at a splashy downfield completion to wide receiver Allen Robinson. His pass fluttered well short of its intended target for an incompletion, then Bortles dropped his head and shoulders in utter frustration.
The throw was awful. But as Taaffe pointed out, Bortles’s reaction may have been even worse.
“I was a little concerned just seeing his body language the other night during the game,” Taaffe says, “particularly when he underthrew that deep ball. Just his reaction, you can tell it’s really gotten to him.”
The “it” in question here is, more or less, everything—the scrutiny, the criticism, the lack of production, the pressure to perform as a top-five draft pick. Bortles has been locked in as the Jaguars’ QB since late September of his rookie seasons, but neither he nor his team has progressed since then. Together, they finished 3-13 last year, with coach Gus Bradley fired along the way. Bortles wrapped 2016 as one of the league’s least effective starting quarterbacks (he ranked 26th among qualifying QBs in QB rating, 30th in QBR).
The Jaguars’ focus this off-season, under interim-turned-head coach Doug Marrone and new executive VP of football operations Tom Coughlin, was to get back to basics—to clean up Bortles’s wayward mechanics. The main focus therein had to do with Bortles’s release, a looping wind-up that knocked off timing on his throws and left him susceptible to having the ball swatted from his grasp in the pocket.
“He had a real problem a year ago, dropping the ball down below his right hip to throw—that obviously slows down your release time,” says Taaffe. “It appears that aspect is fixed, not dropping the ball like he was.”
It’s improvement, although the mechanics still can be hit or miss. Bortles still has a bit of a windup, especially when he’s trying to drive the ball deep, and his footwork on the downfield throw to Robinson shown above was off. That was a gimme completion, but Robinson had created a gap on the cornerback trailing him and had from the numbers to the sideline free from the safety. An NFL quarterback has to give his receiver a chance to make the catch there.
“I think his issue at this stage is more that six inches between his ears than anything,” Taaffe says. “I think it’s a mental thing now. ...
“You read all the negativity, you hear all that, after awhile—you’re only human—it gets to you. ... I don’t think it’s so much of a physical thing, the mechanics. If anything it’s the confidence factor. It’s a tough business and, obviously, he hasn’t progressed in the last year. There’s a lot of reasons. A lot gets pinned on the quarterback, but they look pretty much like the same team I’ve seen over the time Blake’s been there. They don’t block very well, can’t run the ball with any consistency which obviously hurts the quarterback, their pass protection is getting better but it’s still a little suspect. A lot of moving parts where they’re not a very good football team and quarterback’s the focal point of it.”
The spotlight might not be his for much longer. Following Bortles’s dismal showing vs. Tampa Bay, Marrone named Chad Henne the starter for the Jaguars’ third preseason game—Thursday night vs. Carolina—after the QBs split starter reps in practice all week.
With Bortles coming off the bench against the Panthers, odds are he’ll do the same in Week 1 of the regular season. That could be the end, with the option on Bortles’s contract for next season guaranteed in the event of injury only. The Jaguars are not going to pay $18 million to a QB who cannot even hold off Henne.
Taaffe has not talked to Bortles since camp begins, but says that he remains in touch with the former UCF superstar and will call him up after this week’s preseason action: “Either to say, ‘Way to suck it up,’ or to hang my shingle and have a little counseling session with him.”
“His confidence obviously has to be shaken right now,” Taaffe says, “because for the first time, he’s been challenged by his coaching staff. He’s always been a strong guy mentally and this could be good for him. Obviously, it’s out on the table that, ‘Hey, my job’s being challenged and I’ve got to step up and get it done.”
Bortles’s window to make such a statement may have already run out.