Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell spoke before the team began its coaching search and tried to discount the notion that salvaging plummeting quarterback Blake Bortles would not make or break the process. He said the franchise would be open to different ideas and suggestions, and that the Jaguars still believed in Bortles, but it wouldn't be a deal-breaker.
At the time, however, it was difficult to think that Bortles wouldn't be critical to Jacksonville's pursuit of a new leader, and, according to several league sources with knowledge of the Jaguars' interviewing process, trying to save Bortles is very much at the core of what led to the decision to hire Doug Marrone as coach and bring back Tom Coughlin to run football operations.
After shocking the football world three years ago and taking Bortles third overall and then building an offense around him and trying to load up with weapons, common sense would dictate this franchise wouldn't be anywhere close to moving on. And despite a brutal season in which the quarterback regressed in every way possible, the Jaguars never benched him and never seemed to seriously entertain it, and that was a strong tell in and of itself.
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.
In the end, the Jags gave the strongest consideration to two former NFL head coaches, Mike Smith and Marrone, before settling on the one of those two who works on the offensive side of the ball. Those two candidates made it very clear that they thought they would win with Bortles ASAP, I'm told, and expressed a desire to stick with him, sources said. Now Marrone is going to get just that shot, though I'd say be careful what you wish for, since this could end up being Marrone's last shot to run an NFL team.
Marrone was always well-placed in this process, and Hall of Fame exec Bill Polian, whose word holds tremendous weight with this front office, has long been a big believer in Marrone. The fact that the Jags didn't fire Gus Bradley before Week 16, and that the franchise gave Marrone just two games to work with Bortles instead of, say, four or six or eight, was viewed as some as an indicator he might not get serious thought. But Bortles improved somewhat in those two outings, and Marrone already has an offensive staff in place in Jacksonville that he is comfortable with, and any tangible progress with Bortles clearly mattered much in this search.
There is no shortage of coaches around the league who think Bortles is a marginal talent -- some involved in this interviewing process -- who would have preferred to go in a different direction at quarterback. But that was never going to be the right fit for the Jags. They are basically all-in on Bortles, and, alas, it looks like another coach -- and perhaps the front office -- will live or die on his ability to win games. After making the gamble to draft him as high as they did in the first place, it's not surprising the Jags maintain these convictions. Time will tell if they are right.
Given the way this search unfolded, with the team going with someone already on staff despite the fact they won just one game while Bradley's staff was in place there, I can't imagine the Jaguars won't be picking up the quarterback's fifth-year option. I mean at this point, trying to instill some confidence in him and hiring the only coaching candidate who has worked with him previously, I'm sure they'll take the risk and exercise the expensive 2018 option knowing that it's only truly guaranteed for injury at this time. The Jags usually have way more cap space than they ever need anyway, even if they did have to pay Bortles to go away in 2018.
Bortles, of course, had the third-most giveaways in the NFL in 2016 (22), and has continually started games slowly. He sunk to a QB rating of 78.8 last season with 23 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. He has just a 58.8 percent passer in his career and his decision-making is certainly under question around the league, if not inside the Jaguars team headquarters.
The reality for the Jags now is that, just as selecting Bortles in 2014 became the defining transaction of the Bradley era, so too does it now remain just as decisive for Marrone. His regime will come down to whether Bortles is a bust or a legit starting QB, and I suspect we have that final answer by the time that fifth-year option expires. If it's closer to bust than boon, Marrone will hardly be the only one walking out the door.
More coaching news from around the NFL:
There was a lot of buzz about Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan last month but I didn't expect there to be much traction to that when the process actually got going. He had a very tough go of it in St. Louis from 2006-2008, and it will take another year at the helm of that Dallas offense to get back on this circuit a year from now it seems.
I continue to hear things can move very quickly between the Broncos and Miami defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who will head to Denver to interview Tuesday. Kyle Shanahan had a great meeting with the Broncos -- and gave them some pause -- but John Elway has been high on Joseph for a few years now.
I can't help but wonder if the Rams end up talking to 15 guys by the time their process concludes. I love them chatting with Mike Vrabel, who was one of the guys I highlighted in my column sizing up the most legit coaching candidates, but would be shocked if they don't hire an offensive-minded coach to try to make Jared Goff go. Sean McVay remains a name to pay considerable attention to with the Rams job. I wouldn't discount his chances to be the last man standing there, even at just age 30.
While the 49ers didn't meet with Pats personnel man Nick Caserio over the weekend for their GM opening and I have continued to hear skepticism that he will leave New England, I wouldn't entirely rule him out perhaps talking to San Francisco at some point depending on how their search goes. They very much covet Josh McDaniels, who has long worked with Caserio, and things can move in mysterious ways sometimes in this league.
The Chargers are expected to interview one to two more candidates after chatting with Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. Then they'll begin to start narrowing the field I'm told.