Heading into the 2017 season, there was little reason to expect Blake Bortles to be anything more than the not-even-close-to-replacement-level quarterback he had shown himself to be during his first three NFL seasons. Seriously, the former third-overall pick was terrible.
As a rookie in 2014, Bortles ranked dead last in total value among all quarterbacks, according to Football Outsiders' metrics. He improved to 25th in total value in 2015, when he threw 35 touchdowns along with 18 interceptions and five lost fumbles. And if last season was among his most disappointing -- Bortles had 23 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and six fumbles and there were constant calls to bench him for Chad Henne -- this season has been an after-school-special-level feel-good story.
Not only has Bortles justified the team's decision to pick up his fifth-year option, he's legitimately played like a quarterback worth $19 million next season. That's what he's scheduled to make, and as general manager Dave Caldwell pointed out in the spring, it's a bargain.
"I think that slots him as the 16th-highest quarterback next year, right around the median," Caldwell said on PFT Live in May. "If he was to get the franchise tender that puts him at the third- or fourth- or fifth-ranked quarterback depending on who gets new deals next year."
Team president Tom Coughlin added: "This is a smart business decision for the team for several reasons. It makes sense for us going forward and it's good for Blake and for the Jaguars."
It's easy to imagine that no one believed either Caldwell or Coughlin at the time because Bortles had been such a disappointment. So what happened over the summer and through the first 14 weeks of the season? How has Bortles gone from one of the NFL's worst passers to pretty much what Caldwell described him as: a quarterback making middle-of-the-road money?
That's another way of saying replacement level which, it turns out, is exactly what Bortles has been this season, at least statistically. He's currently 19th in total value, ahead of Andy Dalton, Cam Newton and Marcus Mariota, and just behind Jameis Winston and Josh McCown. Bortles is completing a career-best 60.2 percent of his throws and has 16 touchdowns to eight interceptions and three fumbles.
The difference has been the surrounding cast. Jacksonville averaged 3.7 wins in each of Bortles' first three seasons. Now, thanks to a dominant run game and a suffocating defense -- as well as improved play from Bortles -- the Jaguars are 9-4 and currently the No. 3 seed in the AFC. Things have gotten so out of hand that Bortles' teammates have taken to making some lofty comparisons.
"These last couple of games he's playing amazing," Campbell said, via ESPN.com. "He looks like Tom Brady these last couple games. I know Tom Brady does it all the time, but these last couple games, Blake was out there leading the team, playing confident and having fun."
Cornerback Jalen Ramsey added: "Blake is balling. We know who our quarterback is, and we know what he's been doing, week in and week out, helping us get victories."
And Malik Jackson wants Bortles in the Pro Bowl:
That might be a bit much, but Bortles is a different player this season. In previous years, when we were talking about his terrible mechanics and elongated throwing motion -- behold this popular tweet from October 2016:
We're now witnessing Bortles do things normally reserved for the Tom Bradys (there's that name again) and Aaron Rodgerses of the world:
And that wasn't some meaningless first-quarter completion. Bortles connected with Dede Westbrook on that 29-yard reception on third-and-3 with seven minutes to go in the game, and just four plays after the Seahawks scored a touchdown to cut the lead to 27-17. Four plays later, the Jaguars would end up kicking a field goal and hold on for the 30-24 victory.
A season ago, Bortles ranked 27th in deep-passer QB rating as measured by Pro Football Focus. Matt Ryan led the league with a 136.1 rating on passes that traveled more than 20 yards while Bortles clocked in at 17.5. Brock Osweiler, who ranked 26th, was 46.9. This season, however, Bortles is 15th with an 81.0 rating thanks in large part to throws like the one above -- and to an offensive line that has improved from ninth in pass protection in 2016 to fifth this season. And when facing pressure, Bortles has improved; his passer rating when under pressure in 2016 was 49.7, now it's 70.3.
Also helping: Fournette in the backfield making Bortles' job immeasurably easier.
Helping even more: Jacksonville's second-ranked defense, with three players that have at least four interceptions -- Tashaun Gipson and Jalen Ramsey have four apiece, A.J. Bouye has six. The unit is second in the league with 19 total interceptions and leads the NFL with 47 sacks, including 12.5 from Calais Campbell and 11 more from Yannick Ngakoue.
Then there's the most overlooked aspect of this team: coach Doug Marrone, who was hired in the offseason after serving as interim coach late in 2016. CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora wrote in January that "trying to save Bortles [was] very much at the core of what led to the decision to hire Marrone as coach and bring back Tom Coughlin to run football operations." Put another way: The organization wasn't yet willing to dump Bortles, even if the rest of the football world was.
La Canfora continued:
"So, yeah, this search was all about finding the right coach, but also the right coach who the Jags believe can instill confidence in Bortles and build him back up and find a way to make him a competent NFL quarterback after a lost 2016. Those motives made it virtually certain that the most coveted offensive minds making the rounds on the interview circuit -- Josh McDaniels and Kyle Shanahan -- wouldn't be coming to Jacksonville."
At the time it seemed insane. Now, with 11 months of hindsight, it was precisely the right decision for reasons that are bigger than Bortles.
The cliche about a team going only as far as their franchise quarterback will take them remains mostly true. But if a general manager can assemble a roster like Caldwell's done in Jacksonville, it certainly mitigates the need for a Hall-of-Famer under center. That said, Bortles has been one of the league's best passers in recent weeks.
In the last two games, Blake Bortles is 44 of 62 for 577 yards, four touchdowns and no picks.— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) December 11, 2017
"I felt as though I put our offense in a chance to score points," Bortles said after Sunday's win. "Obviously, not turning the ball over is a big part of that. There will be plays that were bad that we have to get corrected, but there were a lot of plays made out there by the wide receivers, running backs and the offensive line that were pretty awesome."
In three months we've skipped right over questions about whether the Jaguars can play winning football -- that's been made crystal clear -- and now we're left wondering if Bortles, the running game and this defense can play winning football in the postseason. That's a fair concern, mostly because the organization last played a meaningful January game a decade ago, back when Jack Del Rio was the coach, David Garrard was the quarterback, and Maurice Jones-Drew led the team in rushing.
This reality hasn't been lost on the Jags, who have had convincing wins this season against the Ravens (44-7), the Steelers (30-9, and five Ben Roethlisberger interceptions) and Sunday's win over the Seahawks.
"Everybody wants to joke about it but we've been talking about that since we played Pittsburgh: We don't get respect," said Bouye, who twice intercepted Russell Wilson. "They say Roethlisberger was retiring, Flacco didn't have it, usually a lot of stuff like that and we just went up against a player who all week they said was an MVP candidate so I just can't wait to see what they say about that."
Here's what they're saying, A.J.: The Jaguars are for real. And if Bortles continues to play like he has in December -- and the running game and defense do the same -- Jacksonville would become the team best-equipped to take down the Patriots in the AFC.