Even as the Jaguars started winning this season, there remained a comfort in being able to continue to clown on Blake Bortles for being Blake Bortles. But not lately. The Jags are in the playoffs for the first time since the Fred Taylor era, and they mathematically still have a chance to earn home-field advantage in a top-heavy AFC. As hard as this may be to fathom, Bortles indeed deserves plenty of credit for it.
During the season’s first month, as the Jags sandwiched blowout victories against the Texans, Ravens, and Steelers around forehead-slapping losses to the Titans and Jets, it was easy to say Jacksonville was finding ways to keep up appearances without a quarterback. Their defense has been historically good, and the addition of rookie running back Leonard Fournette somehow made it possible to hide Bortles from view, like a couch you reposition to cover a carpet stain. (In that three-TD win at the Steelers, the Jags picked off Ben Roethlisberger five times and Bortles completed just eight passes on 14 attempts.)
But the Jags have won seven of their last eight, and Bortles has certainly done his part. His passer rating has been 119.8 or higher in each of his last three games—all outings in which Jacksonville scored at least 30 points—and he’s registered a rating of 80 or better six times in that span. Bortles has done this even though one top wideout, Allen Robinson, has been on IR since Week 1; another, Allen Hurns, has missed the last five games with an ankle injury; and a third, Marqise Lee, left Sunday’s game against the Texans after hurting his ankle in the first quarter. A quad injury also kept Fournette from playing last Sunday. Yet none of that stopped Bortles from having his finest game of the season: 21-for-29, 326 passing yards, three TDs, a passer rating of 143.7. He only had four incompletions that weren’t throwaways. He had a perfect passer rating when he wasn’t pressured. He wasn’t trash.
Bortles isn’t papering things over by constantly dumping the ball off, either. It’s true that his average intended air yards of 7.8 puts him in Alex Smith territory, but he’s still throwing close to a yard farther, on average, than Joe Flacco (7.1). Bortles is using a good deal of play-action, with 25.7 percent of his dropbacks involving play-fakes, the seventh-highest total in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. The Jags are also frequently playing with a lead—an average of 5.05 points, second only to the Rams’ 6.83, and what’s this world coming to?—and that has further helped Bortles. “Think of Bortles as a Jay Cutler who still cares,” Bleacher Report’s Mike Tanier wrote the other day. “He will always make some mistakes, but his athleticism and big-play capability make him dangerous on a team that only needs a few big plays on offense to win.”
Let’s look at some of those big plays, which were helped along by selling the run with some play-action. Here, on Sunday against the Texans, was Bortles backpedaling to avoid pressure while still dropping a perfect throw to Keelan Cole for a 42-yard gain:
Cole is an undrafted rookie free agent out of Kentucky Wesleyan who caught seven passes (on nine targets) for 186 yards and a touchdown against the Texans. One of those catches covered 73 yards, with Bortles making it look easy thanks to play-action and a clean pocket:
A week earlier against the Seahawks, Bortles delivered this teardrop to another rookie, Dede Westbrook, for another pretty TD:
And watch this 75-yard TD to Cole against the Seahawks, with Bortles making a perfect throw 40 yards through the air:
Look what Bortles saw on that play: Cole ran a post route and had to slice behind a lot of traffic in the middle of the field, but that play-fake got all three of Seattle’s linebackers to bite.
Bortles’s aggressiveness percentage—the percentage of all his throws to a target with a defender within one yard—is 19.4, which ranks 11th. Also, per PFF, he’s attempted 50 deep throws, and his passer rating on those deep tosses is 88.9, which ranks 16th. In addition, a league-high five of his deep balls have been dropped. As a result, Bortles’s adjusted completion percentage on deep throws is 42.0 percent, good enough for 13th. And on intermediate tosses, he’s got a rating of 119.0, which ranks fifth. The accuracy is largely there, too, with PFF deeming just 1.9 percent of Bortles’s throws turnover-worthy, a metric in which he also ranks fifth in the league. And the Jaguars are ranked fifth with touchdowns on 63.6 percent of their red-zone trips, where Bortles has 16 TDs and zero interceptions.
Bortles’s performance during Sunday’s beatdown of the Texans raised his Total QBR from 55.7 to 58.2, ranking him just behind Drew Brees (58.5) and Russell Wilson (58.6) on the season. It’s solidly mid-pack in the NFL this year, but as Seth Walder of ESPN noted before Sunday’s game, Bortles’s Total QBR this year is higher than what Peyton Manning, Flacco, Roethlisberger, and Eli Manning all posted in the 10 last years in seasons in which they won the Super Bowl. The Jags are very capable of making a deep playoff run, not least because their defense can hang with anyone. Bortles sure as hell isn’t Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady or Matt Ryan, but he doesn’t have to be.