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One Year Ago Today, Blake Bortles’s Career Was Over

Last summer the Jaguars benched Bortles for the third preseason game, and many thought they were ready to roll with Chad Henne. Instead, Bortles rallied, won back his job and the support of his teammates, and had his most efficient and winningest season yet. Now, Jaguars coaches think he’s in for even bigger things. Plus, mailbag questions on Khalil Mack’s ETA, Seattle’s front office, the Rams’ next evolution and more

JACKSONVILLE — Today is Blake Bortles’s one-year anniversary. He won’t be celebrating. He sure doesn’t look back on Aug. 23, 2017 fondly. The day he was benched for the Jaguars’ third preseason game in favor of Chad Henne didn’t mean what so many thought it would mean. The reality wasn’t close to the headline in Bortles’s hometown paper, the Orlando Sentinel: “Blake Bortles benching could signal end of NFL career.” In fact—incredibly—it didn’t even wind up costing him a single regular season snap. What we saw as the end, the Jaguars, and Bortles, made into a new beginning.

“Yeah, it was,” Bortles said, hanging underneath the lower bowl at TIAA Bank Field post-practice. “It was terrible, but I don’t view that as personal, that Doug [Marrone] did that. It’s adversity that you’ve gotta overcome. And unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, it’s something I’ve had to deal with my whole career.”

The Jaguars are in a very different spot this year. They’re the hunted, not the hunter. The roster is loaded with young talent. The team’s window to win a championship is as open as it’s been since back when EVP of football operations Tom Coughlin was coaching here. And there’s no question who the quarterback is now.

The Jaguars could’ve made a run at Kirk Cousins or Case Keenum. They could’ve drafted Lamar Jackson. Instead, they put money where their mouths have been, backing up what they’d been saying in signing Bortles to a three-year, $54 million deal, in part because of how he handled his own fork in the road last August.

“I really think when you put the starting lineup on the field, as a coach, I’m responsible for putting the best players on the field that give us the best chance to win,” Marrone said. “And I’m accountable for those players, making sure there are people going out there that they can trust.

“When you look at someone who’s not performing well, what would you do at any other position? You’d open it up, or move somebody in. … If you don’t treat the quarterback like you treat everyone else, I think that’s a problem for a team. So if I’m gonna yell at an offensive linemen, I’m gonna yell at Blake or I’m gonna yell at Jalen [Ramsey], anyone, it’s because we’re trying to get them better.”

We’ll get to your mail in a minute, but we’re starting here with maybe the most interesting quarterback situation in the NFL. The story here is that there isn’t a competition, which highlights the divide in how the general public perceives Bortles, and what the people inside this building think their QB is about to do.

That, naturally, leads us to the difference in last summer and this summer. How does a quarterback go from being unsellable to his locker room in Year 4 to firmly entrenched as its starter going into Year 5? Bortles will tell you it started with the relationship he had with—and trust he had in—new coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, who served as his position coach in 2015 and ’16. That foundation, in fact, was part of what made last August sting.

“It was kinda crazy,” Bortles said. “We have this great relationship, and then I get benched, and now he’s with Chad [Henne] all the time. And it’s like, ‘Oh man, this kinda sucks, this is a bad position to be in.’ We were playing the Panthers, preseason Week 3, and I just was thinking, ‘I can’t wait to go play and earn my spot back, because this isn’t where I want to be; it’s not where I belong.’”

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Bortles got his job back before Week 1, of course, and that meant he and Hackett could move forward on what wasn’t necessarily a ground-up rebuild. But it wasn’t far off from that. Hackett convinced Bortles to check down more, to run when he needed to, and to play quarterback, rather than just playing football.

Back around the Fourth (check out the July 2 MMQB), we went over this with Hackett, who said the two had to “go back to the beginning” in Bortles’s development. Pieces came over the course of the year. It showed up early, with a couple easy checkdowns on calls meant to be shot plays against the Ravens in London last October. It showed up again late, with Bortles beating the Bills in the playoffs with his legs.

And the good signs of progress have carried over into the summer. In the Jags’ preseason opener, Bortles tucked the ball on a second-and-goal from the 2, after seeing the play as called wasn’t there, and took it in for a score.

“It becomes second nature, ‘O.K., you wanna throw this—you drop back, if your first read isn’t there, don’t hang on it, go to your next read; if that’s not there, go to your next one; if that’s not there, take off,” Bortles said. “When you really buy in, and you’re not just doing whatever you want and not playing within the system, when you’re able to do that and buy in and trust it, it works like a charm.”

It also led to a season that may not have been the most prolific of his career, but was, considering a career-best completion percentage and a career-low in picks, his most efficient. It was far and away his winningest, too. And just as significant, the quarterback controversy everyone figured would be brewing never came to pass. As Marrone had wanted, Bortles won the job outright, and with it the respect of his teammates. Remember how they backed him after upsetting Pittsburgh in the playoffs? As Marrone sees it, that was a result of what they saw Bortles go through.

“Young guys, like Cam [Robinson] and Leonard [Fournette], right from the beginning, were like, ‘Hey, he’s our quarterback and we have his back,” Marrone said. “And when the stuff on the outside started to come into play, be it other players or people saying things about Blake. That’s when I saw the whole team involved. Now the defense was sticking up for him. Everybody was rallying around him. …

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“Dick McPherson was my college coach and he worked for Sam Rutigliano, and Coach Rutigliano said it one time, that if you have a quarterback and your team believes they can win with him, you gotta stick with him. … I wanted guys to know: That guy is playing because he earned it.”

Come Halloween, Hackett will have been Bortles’s coordinator for two years, which is longer than he’s worked with any OC since turning pro. That’s led to the buy-in we reference that he hasn’t had, even last year. “Even then, I’m bought in, I’m doing everything the right way, but I would still do stupid stuff.” There have been ups, and the really notable downs, and now the quarterback sees his game at a different level.

Does that mean Bortles will have a breakthrough year? It would be hard for anyone to call that in August. But what you can say without reservation is he’s in a better position to get there than he’s ever been.

“Nathaniel’s the closest I’ve ever been with a coach,” Bortles said. “Whether I play or don’t play for him, we’ll be friends and have a relationship for the rest of our lives. It’s my job to my job to make sure I’m playing at level where I can go start and be the guy to help this team win every Sunday. And if I ever dip below that level, I have no problem being replaced.”

Or maybe just less of one than he had a year ago today. On to the mail …

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From Donald Alveshere (@wareaglebosie):Has the Hawks front office lost its way?

Hey Donald—I’d say no. GM John Schneider and his crew should have the trust of the fan base there, though it should be noted that duplicating what they did in assembling that roster won’t be easy. Within three drafts, they got Bobby Wagner, Russell Wilson and Golden Tate with Day 2 picks, and Kam Chancellor, K.J. Wright, Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell and Malcolm Smith with Day 3 picks.

That’s insane, and opened the door—given all the guys on cheap rookie deals—to go sign free agents like Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. It would have been borderline impossible to keep that up, and Seattle hasn’t, and now many of the aforementioned stars are gone. That makes the ’17 and ‘18 draft classes critical as Schneider and Pete Carroll have re-emphasized the program’s principles in player acquisition.

So guys like Ethan Pocic, Shaquill Griffin, Tedric Thompson, Chris Carson, and Rashaad Penny are pretty important, with the pick of Malik McDowell two Aprils ago already down as a notable miss.

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From Chucky Is Back (@raider_chucky):What is the end result of the Khalil Mack situation, come the first week of the season Khalil Mack will be _______________?

Still a Raider, but not one who has reported. As we said in this week’s MMQB, teams inquiring about Mack’s availability have been met with a hard no. That could change, of course. But for now, he’s unavailable for trade. And there hasn’t been progress at all on a contract extension, which isn’t helping Mack’s feelings toward the only NFL team he’s ever played for.

What’s been interesting about this situation all along is how it relates to Aaron Donald’s holdout in Los Angeles, and Donald doing a market-shifting extension between now and Week 1. On one hand, it could provide a template for Mack’s deal to be done. On another, if the Rams give Donald heavy guarantees and favorable structure, it could lead to Mack to dig in further.

I think cash flow is a factor here, and you can actually see that addressed in how Derek Carr’s contract was back-loaded to the years the team will be in Vegas. It is, of course, a lot easier for a quarterback to accept that kind of structure, given longevity at the position, than it would be for anyone else.

From Tyler Schmidt (@tschmidt_31):Should Denver be happy with their QB situation? They have a journeyman as a starter, as well as a 7th round pick and a bust in Lynch as backups. What gives?

It’s a great example of how striking out on drafting a quarterback—or quarterbacks—high can have serious consequences. Remember, the Broncos spent a 2 on Brock Osweiler and developed him for four years before letting him go, which was the right move but also forced them to draft another one, in Paxton Lynch, that spring. And they’ve spent the last two years developing Lynch to no avail.

That, in a nutshell, is where you wind up rolling the dice, at a price of $18 million per, on the idea that Case Keenum’s 2017 was more than a comet across the sky. It’s also where a guy like Chad Kelly has an opening to win a job as the backup. And I’m a believer that Keenum can be O.K. if you have enough talent around him.

Does Denver? That remains to be seen with aging pieces at the skill positions. What makes this situation fascinating is the looming what if. The Broncos passed on both Josh Allen and Josh Rosen at 5. And whether they regret that will ride on the development of those two, as well as the performance of Bradley Chubb and Keenum.

From Doug Fast (@drfastman):Does any team do one thing completely different than the rest of the league?

This is a fun question—and the answer is “not for long.” Either innovations work and they are imitated, or they don’t and go away. But there were a couple interesting things I picked up along the camp trail.

One was the presence of video boards on the practice field, which I was told teams noticed in visiting Michigan last year, where Jim Harbaugh put them up to allow coaches to make corrections with the players on the field in real time. I saw them up in Cleveland, and figured the Browns might be out front with them. Then, a few days later, I saw them at Rams camp. Then a few days after that, at Raiders camp.

Another is there’s been a lot of talk about injury prevention innovations happening overseas in other sports, and how football needs to catch up. I do wonder if teams are doing more in that department now, because it at least seems like we’ve seen fewer catastrophic injuries than usual (knock on wood) this summer.

From Ayyyyyo (@doc_tankles):With the success of the Eagles, Rams, Chiefs and some of these other “spread” teams have you noticed a change in defensive philosophy in terms of defending RPOs or highlighting more player speed or pressure?

I think we’ll have to wait for the season to see, but I can say that a lot of teams descended on Oklahoma (we wrote about it atop the June 25 MMQB) to study the offensive side of this, and Alabama to try and crib some knowledge on how to defend against it. And I’m sure there were plenty of other levers pulled by teams to learn both how to run and stop these concepts. That’s why I thought it was interesting where my conversation with Rams QB Jared Goff went earlier in August.

“What we’ve talked about in the offseason, we did so many innovative things last year that really are no longer innovative,” Goff said. “Teams understand that, and what our MO is. The tape’s out there. That’s number one. Number two, we’ve evolved. We’ve tried to implement new stuff, and this guy’s pretty smart over there, and he’s come up with some good stuff. And we’ve got some new wrinkles that should give teams fits.”

“This guy,” of course, is Sean McVay. And McVay and Doug Pederson would acknowledge that it’s on them to, as Goff alluded to, keep it moving forward. One advantage those two, and guys like Chiefs coach Andy Reid and Bears coach Matt Nagy maintain here? They clearly teach that stuff well.

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From Scott Riley (@uncheel1987):There are a lot of people down on the Dolphins going into this season. What was the vibe you got during your visit?

I’d say the vibe was defiance. My sense is guys felt like they were widely seen as headed in the right direction, with a young QB guru as coach, a year ago, and don’t understand why the circus of a 2017 season (Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Foerster, Tannehill’s ACL) is being seen as a harbinger of further doom.

And it’s not like they didn’t address the problems. Guys like Jarvis Landry and Ndamukong Suh didn’t do much to right the ship when it went off course, so they were replaced by guys with leadership credentials that represent what Adam Gase wanted in his locker room all along.

Will it be enough to get Miami back to where it was in 2016? Much of that, obviously, depends on Tannehill, and what guys like Danny Amendola, Robert Quinn, Josh Sitton and Frank Gore have left. But just as important is how the development of the last three draft classes plays out—the Dolphins still have 22 of 23 picks from those years on the roster.

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From Maria Barber (@mariabarber):Can you from each camp give a brief analysis of the overall mood, breakout surprise player & veteran poised to make a significant impact?

Maria, after 23 camps, I appreciate that thought—and keep your eye out. In either this week’s MMQB or next week’s, I’ll probably do a section unloading the notebook from all those. So you guys can look forward to that.

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