Former Browns teammates Joe Thomas and Andrew Hawkins will be teaming up this year to provide analysis on the NFL season from the perspective of two former players. In this week’s ThomaHawk Thoughts, the duo shares why they do not agree with Doug Marrone’s decision to bench Jaguars QB Blake Bortles.
Andrew Hawkins: Jaguars coach Doug Marrone benching Blake Bortles in favor of Cody Kessler and then starting him again this week was the wrong decision. A coach should only bench a quarterback when he thinks he has a better option—and then be prepared to stick with that better option. If you're going to put another quarterback in, you better make sure he is the solution to your problems and that was not the case with Bortles and Kessler.
Joe Thomas: A head coach gets one bench card for the whole season and once you use that, going back to the first quarterback makes the coach look weak. Players begin to wonder if the coach hit the panic button, and it appears he’s making decisions willy nilly without thought. It is so important to know that everybody is behind the quarterback. As soon as you start flip flopping it makes you look unsure of yourself, it's like a politician. You have to be able to go with one thing and be committed to it and everybody on the field needs to know the commitment is there.
Hawkins: Marrone said he benched Bortles to get a spark out of him and the team, but a coach shouldn’t try to send a message through the quarterback that way. It’s only going to create more turmoil not just for Bortles but also for the rest of the team. A team looks at its quarterback as the only constant, as the general, the man in charge; if the coach doesn’t have that confidence in his guy, then that sends a message to the team that we don’t have the most important position on the field figured out.
Thomas: Quarterback is the one position in sports that you can’t motivate a player by threatening to take his job away. A coach needs a quarterback to have the confidence to take risks and throw into tight windows, and if the quarterback gets intercepted for whatever reason, he needs to know he’s not going to get benched. As soon as you take away a quarterback’s confidence, he‘ll start holding onto the football and giving up sacks. He is going to be so risk averse because of that fear of the quick hook from the coach that he won’t be able to go out there and play quarterback in the NFL.
Hawkins: I can remember specifically in 2014 in Cleveland when we were 7–4, ahead in the division and Brian Hoyer was on a tear, but coaches wanted to move Johnny Football into there. They benched Hoyer midway through the next game, and he was never the same because he spent the rest of the season looking over his shoulder. I can remember sitting in the locker room when they told us about making the change permanent and hearing conversations of other guys who came there from other organizations, and they thought, man, this coaching staff isn’t trying to win. It didn’t make sense to them, and it brought the morale of the team down. Sitting a quarterback who is playing well while the team is ahead in the division at 7–4 sends the message to your team that winning isn’t the No. 1 priority now.
Thomas: That was also a big issue in 2009 when we had Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson—Eric Mangini was the head coach, and he kept going back and forth between the two guys. The quarterback has to be that coach on the field, and the rest of the team needs to know that he is the boss and he’s supported by the head coach. If anybody on that field doesn’t fully believe that everything the quarterback says is gold, then he will not going to listen to you.
The scuffle that happened in the Jaguars locker room after the game is a direct result of what Marrone did on Sunday; when you bench that quarterback, especially when you don’t have someone behind who is the heir apparent, then you are sending the message that the coaches are searching for answers. That’s the worst look you can have because that trickles down to the entire roster and that’s why we saw players fighting with each other in the locker room.
Hawkins: If Blake isn’t good enough, we should know that by now. It’s not like he only played four games—he has been in the league for five years. He is the same Blake Bortles we’ve always seen. He’s not going to come back and be a different quarterback now because you benched him. It's probably going to work in the opposite way. He is still going to be who he is and we know that.
Thomas: The reason you bench a player is because it’s sometimes the most effective way to draw more effort out of him and to give him that wakeup call. But by and large, most quarterbacks are always focused on giving it their best effort, because they know how important it is and they are so well paid, there is so much on the line that they are giving their best effort in meetings and practice already. So, motivating a quarterback by benching him is not something that is even possible because it is about making decisions, it’s not about trying to block somebody harder or giving more effort downfield. When you bench a quarterback, you give the locker room a helpless feeling that can lead to a deflated mentality which spills over in meetings, study habits, practice and preparation. The locker rooms feels like they don’t have a chance and what you get is guys are trying less overall.
That's the problem with benching a quarterback. If anything, the only difference you will see is that a QB will be more cautious and conservative, which is not what you want at that position. I'm not going to say it’s impossible for Bortles to come back and have a good game, but I think the probability of him being able to bounce back from this is now lower then if the team had let him try to ride it out.
Joe Thomas and Andrew Hawkins have their own football podcast, The ThomaHawk Show. Episodes post Mondays and Thursdays on Apple Podcasts or wherever podcasts are available.