How a Winding Road at Quarterback Since 2011 Has Led the Jaguars to Today
The significance of stability at the quarterback position in the NFL can't be understated. It has been proven over and over again — If you want to find consistent success in the NFL and ultimately give your team a shot at the Super Bowl, you need to find an answer at the quarterback position.
Since 2011, the Jacksonville Jaguars have started seven different quarterbacks, with none having a winning record as a starter (though one is currently at .500 ... but we will get to that). The Jaguars' have gone through draft busts, failed veteran options, and regrettable contracts, all along going 43-101 in the nine-year process.
Luke McCown: two starts (1-1 record).
Blaine Gabbert: 27 starts (5-22 record as starter).
Chad Henne: 22 starts (5-17 record as starter).
Blake Bortles: 73 starts (24-49 record as starter).
Cody Kessler: Four starts (2-2 record as starter).
Nick Foles: 4 starts (Technically 0-4 as starter. Didn't finish two games).
Gardner Minshew II: 12 starts (6-6 as starter).
The decisions have the Jaguars made at the NFL's most important and valuable position since 2011 is a winding road, but it is a road in which deserves to be reflected on as the Jaguars march on to another hopeful attempt at finding a franchise quarterback.
So, what moves have the Jaguars made at quarterback since 2011, and how has it shaped the team's past and present since? We take a case-by-case look to determine the answer, but all winding roads have to begin somewhere.
For the Jaguars, it begins in 2011, a year defined by questionable decisions at various points by the Jaguars past leadership, and a year which has since created a lasting impact.
2011 is when things started to get a little weird at the quarterback position for the Jaguars. While they didn't have a top-tier starter at the position, veteran quarterback David Garrard had started 76 games for the team since 2002, including three playoff games.
But things changed in a major way on the day of the 2011 NFL Draft's first round.
The Gabbert Era
Unbeknownst to head coach Jack Del Rio, general manager Gene Smith had become enamored with Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Del Rio would state in a May 2019 interview with ESPN Jacksonville 690 that while he liked Gabbert, he didn't see a first-rounder at the time.
Little did he know then that once the first-round came around, Smith would trade up six spots to select Gabbert No. 10 overall, bypassing on players such as J.J. Watt, Robert Quinn, and Ryan Kerrigan, while also giving up a second-round pick in the process.
"I had no idea we were going to draft Blaine Gabbert. No idea," Del Rio said. "In fact, I left to go get something to eat because our pick wasn't for much longer in the draft. I'm sitting there filling my plate thinking, 'Oh great, we've got a couple more hours until we pick.' Then, I look up and see 'The Jaguars are on the clock.'"
Once the first round had drawn to a close, Gabbert was a Jaguar, and Smith's vision for the team began to take shape. Garrard would not start another game for Jacksonville, and he found himself in an unusual exit.
Five days before the 2011 season opener, Garrard was released by the Jaguars despite being the starting quarterback for much of the preseason and training camp. Even stranger, Garrard was released only hours after appearing at an annual team luncheon at the chamber of commerce.
McCown wouldn't be long for the role of Garrard's replacement. While most presumed Gabbert would be holding a clipboard and learning from McCown, he took McCown's place behind center during a Week 2 blowout loss to the New York Jets.
Gabbert would take the mantle of starting quarterback for the rest of the season, starting the next 14 games and moving forward in his new place as the Jaguars' franchise quarterback after just two games of McCown.
"Yes, they moved on too soon from Luke. Once you cut Garrard and say you're going to go with Luke with Blaine as the backup, you have to give Luke more than two games," Hall of Fame sportswriter Vito Stellino wrote to JaguarReport in an email. "He had one good one in the opener and a bad one against the Jets in the second game. He threw four picks but two were late in a catchup mode."
"Also, Gabbert wasn't ready. That was the year of the lockout and he came out after his junior year. Of course, Gabbert was a career backup to start with. [He] had the physical tools but no intangibles, not a leader. He is the opposite of Gardner, who doesn't have great physical tools but is a leader."
Gabbert struggled mightily as a rookie, barely completing over 50% of his passes, and the Jaguars limped to a 5-11 record. As a result, Del Rio would be fired and Smith would move forward with a new head coach to guide his quarterback.
Smith would hire offensive-minded Mike Mularkey as the team's third full-time head coach in franchise history and signed veteran free agent quarterback Chad Henne to backup Gabbert, and potentially even push him.
The decision to draft Gabbert would look like an unmitigated failure as Jacksonville finished with a franchise-worst 2-14 record. Gabbert started 10 games, going 1-9 in the process and completing just 58.3% of his passes while throwing nine touchdowns and six interceptions.
Once the year ended, Smith and Mularkey were fired, clearing the franchise of all leaders with ties to Gabbert. Then in the first year of general manager Dave Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley elected to pass on selecting a quarterback with the No. 2 overall pick, or with any of their picks for that matter.
Gabbert was given one last crack at taking the starting job in Jacksonville, but in the end, it didn't really matter. It was clear that eventually Caldwell and Bradley would find their own quarterback, and Gabbert and Henne were simply going to be placeholders for 2013.
Gabbert would start the season as the team's top quarterback, but he was once again given a limited period of time as the signal-caller. After three games (all losses), the Jaguars benched Gabbert for Henne, and Gabbert never took another snap for the Jaguars.
"It was a smart move to realize their mistake with Gabbert and get rid of him. As I said, he was a career backup," Stellino said.
Banking on Bortles
In 2014, the Jaguars made another major investment in the quarterback position via the draft. But this time, they didn't have to trade up, and the head coach was actually in on the decision.
The Jaguars would select UCF quarterback Blake Bortles with the No. 3 overall pick, making him the highest-drafted quarterback in team history. In Bortles, the Jaguars saw a passer who needed seasoning but had a ceiling high enough to lead their roster on a long-term basis while Henne navigated the waters in the short-term.
Bortles was still thrown into the fire early as a starter, despite the Jaguars constantly saying they had planned for Henne to take the major lumps as Bortles developed. Predictably, Bortles struggled on a flawed Jaguars team, ending 2014 with a 3-10 record as a starter, completing just 58.9% of his passes and throwing six more interceptions (17) than touchdowns (11).
Bortles' second year, and a change in offensive coordinators, didn't result in much on-field success in the form of wins in 2015 (Jacksonville went 5-11). But he still had a productive season by most standards, even if he was still too prone to turnovers. While Bortles completed only 58.6% of his passes in 16 starts, he threw for 4,428 yards and 35 touchdowns with 18 interceptions.
The positive momentum created from 2015? It came crashing down in 2016. Bortles and the team's entire passing offense regressed mightily, leading to offensive coordinator Greg Olson, and then Bradley, being fired before the season ended.
The Jaguars opted not to bench Bortles at any point, but the third-year passer oversaw a 3-13 record in 16 games and finished the season with 3,905 yards passing, a 58.9% completion rate, 23 touchdown passes, and 16 interceptions (fourth-most in the NFL). Through three seasons, Bortles had compiled an 11-34 record as a starter.
Despite a rocky start to his career, the Jaguars picked up Bortles' fifth-year option. But they also hired former Jaguars head coach Tom Coughlin as executive vice president of football operations, a move that signaled to many that the Jaguars may decide to draft a quarterback with the No. 4 overall pick in 2017.
However, instead of the Jaguars pulling the trigger on Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes, they opted to select running back Leonard Fournette. Taking any running back over a serviceable quarterback prospect is malpractice to begin with, but do Coughlin made the final decision. He thought Bortles could still play starting-caliber football as long as there was a running game around him.
Coughlin's plan worked to near-perfection in his first year in Jacksonville's front office. The Jaguars formed an elite defense and a productive running game around Bortles, and the fourth-year passer cut his interceptions down to 13, though he had thrown fewer attempts than in either of the previous two seasons.
Jacksonville went 10-6 and advanced to their only playoff appearance of the decade. Bortles struggled as a passer in the Wild Card round but his legs and a short touchdown pass to Ben Koyack helped lift Jacksonville over Buffalo, and then Bortles had a decent game throwing vs. Pittsburgh the next week, finishing the 45-42 win with a 94.1 quarterback rating.
Bortles would start hot vs. the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game, but he and the rest of the team struggled throughout the second half, squandering a fourth quarter lead and Jacksonville's greatest opportunity yet to reach the Super Bowl.
A few months after taking the ball out of Bortles' hand throughout the season as a team strategy, they gave him a three-year deal worth $54 million with an average annual salary of $18 million and $26.5 million in guaranteed money.
“Blake’s growth and development last season was a key to the success we had as a team,” Coughlin said in a statement following the deal. “Blake has proven, with toughness and dependability, that he can be the leader this team needs going forward. Along with this contract come high expectations that he will continue to improve and help our team accomplish its ultimate goal.”
In 2018, the entire Jaguars team struggled. But the fact remains that a few months after granting Bortles an extension, the Jaguars had one of the worst offenses in the NFL and the Bortles deal already looked like a mistake.
Bortles would start 12 games in 2018, going 3-9 in the process while throwing only 13 touchdowns, along with 11 interceptions. Toward the final quarter of the season, he was benched in favor of Cody Kessler to give the offense a spark.
"I put myself in this position and I didn't play good enough," Bortles said that November. "Didn't win football games. Couldn't find a way to get it done. And when that happens, it's a business and everybody understands that."
Kessler started just four games, eventually being replaced at the end of the season for Bortles. But the musical chairs of the position resembled the same issue as the competition between Gabbert and Henne in 2012 and 2013. It didn't really matter who won or who proved to be slightly better, because each had already proven they weren't the long-term answer.
For Bortles, 2018 proved to be the final straw of his shaky tenure in Jacksonville. In March 2019, the Jaguars released Bortles, taking on a historically high $16.5 million dead cap hit.
Foles and Minshew Puzzle
After the failures of the Bortles' deal, Coughlin turned his sights to a new quarterback: the one who won the 2017 Super Bowl the Jaguars were so close to reaching.
A few days before releasing Bortles, Coughlin and the Jaguars had agreed to terms with Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles. The contract was for four-years, $88 million, and worth more than $45 million in guarantees.
Owner Shad Khan would go on to say it was the Jaguars' "dream" to land Foles following the disappointing 2018 season, but Khan has also said that he pushed for a backup for Foles. In an attempt to find that player, the Jaguars selected Minshew with the No. 178 overall pick in the sixth round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
"For me, we were not getting out of this draft … I didn't care if we took a quarterback in the first round," Khan said during the 2019 regular season. "We needed somebody. That's something in the six prior years of my tenure we just had not been able to get done – which is have a competent backup."
Unfortunately for Foles, he sustained a fractured clavicle on only the second offensive possession of the season. The injury would require surgery and took Foles off of the field for the next eight games, opening the door for his replacement to take over.
With Foles on the mend, Minshew started the next eight games and electrified the team and fan base, going 4-4 in the process.
Jacksonville lost each of Foles' first two starts upon his return, and the veteran quarterback was then benched in favor of Minshew by head coach Doug Marrone at halftime of a Week 13 blowout loss. Foles didn't play another snap in 2019, or for the Jaguars.
Coughlin would be fired in December and Foles' own exit from Jacksonville followed soon thereafter. In March, Caldwell and the Jaguars traded Foles to the Chicago Bears for a fourth-round draft pick, cutting off any financial commitment to Foles past 2020 and collecting more than $18 million in dead cap.
Where the Jaguars are Today
As a result of the second failed quarterback contract in as many years, the Jaguars have found themselves where they are at today at the quarterback position. Minshew is set up to be the unquestioned starter, becoming the latest in a long line of hopes and prayers at the quarterback position in Jacksonville.
What about any potential competition for the sophomore quarterback? After spending big on Bortles and Foles, and having each experiment blow up disastrously in their faces, Jacksonville opted to go the cost-controlled route this offseason.
Jacksonville picked No. 9 overall in last month's draft and all of the top-rated passing prospects were off the board before they got a chance to debate taking one, and Jacksonville's only veteran addition at quarterback has been the non-threatening Mike Glennon.
The expectation now is that the Jaguars are Minshew's team for 2020, much as they were Gabbert's team in 2012 and Bortles' team for several years near the middle and end of the decade.
"I'm just expecting to get his best and really haven't been in discussions of strategically handling things like that," Marrone said last week when asked about how Minshew can deal with the raised expectations.
"I think that he's been in so many tough, adverse situations. Just on his path, and his journey towards the NFL, think he'll probably rely - just assuming -, he'll rely on a lot of that."
The hope in Jacksonville is that Minshew will be like anything but his predecessors at the position. Jacksonville has gone the route of trading up for a quarterback, taking one in the top-5, looking for veteran stop-gaps, and overpaying someone else's success story. They have done it all in search of a franchise quarterback since 2011, but have failed every time.
Now, they will be going the route of rolling the dice on a previously unheralded player who they found in the draft's final rounds. Minshew is an NFL-level passer and had as good of a rookie season as any other rookie passer in 2019, if not a better year, but can he be the long-term answer?
That is a question the Jaguars have been asking for the entirety of the past decade. This time, they are hoping the answer will finally be yes.