Blake Bortles isn’t the hottest quarterback in the NFL anymore.
Not after throwing three interceptions in the Jacksonville Jaguars’ 44-33 loss to San Francisco at Levi’s Stadium.
One bad game in the past month shouldn’t overshadow the fact that he’s still playing the best football of his career and the Jaguars (10-5) are AFC South champions in large part because of the way he has played in 2017. Yet that’s not going to stop the Bortles criticism from getting louder this week.
“Personally, I’m still riding with 5,” cornerback Aaron Colvin said, referencing Bortles’ jersey number. “I have all the confidence in the world. I know he’s going to play perfect when we need him to play perfect. Everybody has a bad game.
“I know him. I know his competitive drive, and I know he’ll come back next week and dominate.”
It’s interesting how the rest of the football world views Bortles, though, because there seems to be no middle ground. It was hard to find anyone outside of the Jaguars organization who believed in Bortles after he led the NFL in turnovers (63) from 2013 to 2016, and his five-interception training camp practice and preseason benching (for a week, anyway) ramped up the criticism even more.
It wasn’t until the 25-year-old was the NFL’s highest-rated quarterback (128.6) in the first three weeks of December, when he threw for 903 yards and seven touchdowns with no interceptions that perception started to turn. Some of his most vocal critics, including ESPN’s Ryan Clark, even apologized publicly.
But Sunday’s performance is probably going to swing things back the other way, but it really shouldn’t. Bortles didn’t play exceptionally well, but the Jaguars didn’t lose to the 49ers only because of the way he played.
Bortles completed 32 of 50 passes for a career-high 382 yards and two touchdowns, but he also threw three interceptions, including one that was returned 50 yards for a touchdown. That pass bounced off the hand of rookie receiver Keelan Cole, who stopped his crossing route. After the game, Bortles said he was to blame because Cole read the coverage correctly and he shouldn’t have tried to lead him with the pass.
The second interception was on Bortles. He failed to get the ball over defensive back K’Waun Williams, who made a one-handed grab. The third pick was a miscommunication because Cole was supposed to break off his route and didn’t.
“It starts with me and turning the ball over and then kind of everybody understanding their assignments and executing them,” Bortles said. “I thought we had a good plan going into the week. We just have to find ways to move the ball, score points and take care of it [not turn the ball over].”
That was the first time Bortles had thrown three interceptions since Week 3 of the 2016 season. He now has 21 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions in 2017, which is nearly a 2-1 TD-to-interception ratio. He’s still on pace to commit the fewest turnovers of his career.
Plus, he has been playing without his No. 1 receiver (Allen Robinson) all season, hasn’t had Allen Hurns (ankle) for the past six games, and didn’t have Marqise Lee (ankle) on Sunday. His top four receivers Sunday were Cole (now with 38 career catches), fourth-round pick Dede Westbrook (26), first-year player Jaydon Mickens (six) and third-year player Jaelen Strong (31), who was active for the first time since Week 2 with Houston.
Cole, Westbrook and Mickens have played pretty well the past several weeks, but at some point that inexperience was going to catch up to the Jaguars, and that’s what happened Sunday.
“For sure,” said tight end Marcedes Lewis. “Like I said before, it’s better to happen now so we can correct it moving forward rather than in two weeks where it’s too late.”
It’s easy to lay the bulk of the blame for Sunday’s loss at Bortles’ feet. He does deserve some, but the defense gave up 131 yards on the ground, let Jimmy Garoppolo throw for 242 yards and two scores while only sacking him once, and ended up with three 15-yard penalties for taunting, unsportsmanlike conduct and unnecessary roughness.
Take out Bortles’ 31 yards rushing and the Jaguars’ running backs averaged 2.7 yards per carry, so he didn’t get much help there, either.
Bortles didn’t play particularly well Sunday, but that doesn’t change the fact that this has been the best season of his career and the Jaguars are no longer winning games in spite of him.