In all seriousness, the Jacksonville Jaguars began the season as a possible Super Bowl contender. Coming off a run to the AFC championship game that was largely short-circuited by a lack of aggressiveness and some predictable offensive play-calling, the Jags seemed to have the defense and the all-around infrastructure to paper over the fact that Blake Bortles was still their starting quarterback. They even thought enough of Bortles and his modest improvement in 2017 to extend his contract. The Jags got off to a 3-1 start that included a victory at home against the Patriots, and everything seemed to be going swimmingly. But since then, Jacksonville has been a mess: Six straight losses, with star cornerback Jalen Ramsey becoming the subject of trade rumors.
“This sort of thing starts to feel like quicksand,” defensive end Calais Campbell recently told The MMQB’s Robert Klemko. “The harder you fight out of it, the more mistakes you make, the more you slip.”
What went wrong?
Bortles is Bortles
This was always going to be an issue, wasn’t it? Bortles was fine last year, and the Jags gambled on the possibility that he would remain fine by locking him into a deal that actually would have been below-market had Bortles been what they hoped. Now they might be stuck with him unless they want to toss $16.5 million in 2019 dead money into the trash can (albeit with a $6.5 million offset should Bortles sign somewhere else for up to that amount).
Bortles’s standard stats this year are similar to what he did in 2017. But he’s far less efficient: 25th in both DYAR and DVOA, per Football Outsiders, compared to 15th and 16th last season, respectively. He’s also making the same sort of poor decisions, bad reads, and crummy throws that plagued him throughout his first four seasons in the league. It’s true that the Jags have been hit by injuries (see below), but Bortles reverting to being Blake Bortles hasn’t helped at all: Last year, the Jags ranked 14th in drive success rate (a Football Outsiders metric that measures the percentage of series that result in a first down or touchdown). This season, they rank 27th. Bortles is basically back to being the QB his teammates hated in August 2017.
Remember when the Jags led the Patriots 20-10 in the fourth quarter of last year’s AFC title game and kept running the damn ball on first down? Sunday, they led the Steelers 16-0 in the third quarter, and after Pittsburgh made it 16-6, the Jags got the ball back with 1:17 left in the third. They began all of their next four possessions by ... aw, hell, just let Warren Sharp explain it:
The Steelers won the game, 20-16.
The Jags ranked sixth in adjusted games lost due to injury in 2017, according to Football Outsiders, and the luck of being able to stay relatively healthy was undoubtedly a factor in their deep playoff run. Injuries happen to every team, and while it’s too soon to know exactly how ravaged the Jags are compared to other teams, they have been hit kind of hard on offense. Left tackle Cam Robinson has been out for the season since Week 2, and center Brandon Linden was lost for the year in Week 10, both with knee injuries. Tight ends Austin-Sefarian-Jenkins (abdominal) and Niles Paul (knee) haven’t played since Weeks 5 and 6, respectively. Running back Corey Grant is done for the year with a foot injury. Running back Leonard Fournette missed six games. And wideout Marqise Lee went down for the year in preseason.
The Jags’ D isn’t the dominant unit it was last year, but it’s still pretty good—just not good enough to overcome the offense’s total backslide. Last year, the Jags ranked first in overall defensive DVOA and DVOA against the pass. This year, they’re sixth in both categories—not a huge dropoff.
What’s hurt the Jags’ D has been regression in three key areas that The Ringer’s Danny Kelly says are frequently subject to variance from year to year: takeaways, sacks, and red-zone defense. Last season, the Jags were second in takeaways (33), tied for fourth in fumble recoveries (12), second in sacks (55), and second in red-zone conversion rate (39.3 percent). This season, they’re tied for 28th in takeaways (11), tied for 25th in fumble recoveries (3), 27th in sacks (21), and tied for 14th in the red zone (57.1 percent). In short, their defense is efficient, but it’s not the ball-hawking, playmaking unit that often set up its offense the way it did last year. Given the mess on offense, this team couldn’t survive even this relatively modest regression.