Did Injuries Cause Regression of Blake Bortles?

Jan 1, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles (5) drops back to pass against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 1, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles (5) drops back to pass against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports /

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles was horribly disappointing in 2016, but did injuries play the biggest role in his regression as a passer?

When the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted Blake Bortles with the third overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, there was plenty of optimism in the air. Bortles drew very loose comparisons to the likes of Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck at UCF because of his size, arm strength, and rushing ability.

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However, even Bortles’ supporters admitted that he wasn’t a finished product. He didn’t have much experience reading through his progressions, he made some questionable decisions, and he displayed erratic accuracy in college.

As a rookie, all of those negatives were evident, as Bortles threw 17 interceptions to just 11 touchdowns with 6.1 yards per pass attempt. He didn’t have a good team around him, but Bortles, as expected, was his own worst enemy as a decision-maker.

In his second season, Bortles’s accuracy issues remained, as he completed under 60 percent of his passes again. However, he demonstrated clear growth as a sophomore, and his aggressive passing style made him one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the league. In fact, he looked like a future star, and he ranked above fellow sophomore breakout quarterback Derek Carr in the NFL Network’s top 100 players list.

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That ranking was controversial at the time, but it looks downright silly throughout this year. Whereas Carr is a potential MVP candidate before a late-season injury, Bortles was one of the five worst quarterbacks in the league in 2016.

After throwing 35 touchdowns to 18 interceptions with 276.8 passing yards per game in 2015, Bortles had 22 touchdowns to 16 interceptions with and average of 240.3 passing yards per game. Bortles was inefficient, made some embarrassing throws, and gave defenses every opportunity to defeat the Jaguars. Bortles led the Jaguars to a 3-13 record.

Bortles’ regression looks all the more concerning when you take a look at his supporting cast. Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns were two of the best receivers in the NFL, and the offseason hype train on Marqise Lee proved to come true. Lee was second on the team with 851 receiving yards, and he looked like the team’s best wideout at times. With Julius Thomas at tight end, upgrades on the offensive line, and a running back duo of Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon, this was supposed to be Bortles’s year to shine.

When it comes to specific holes in Bortles’ game, there are plenty of places to start. His pocket awareness needs work, his accuracy has always been among the worst in the league, he does a terrible job of taking care of the football, and his mechanics have become a key point of criticism (Yahoo! Sports’s Greg Cosell).

However, some of Bortles’s struggles could be potentially explained by injury. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Bortles told colleague Michael DiRocco that Bortles played through two shoulder separations and wrist tendonitis.

That definitely sounds painful, but there’s no real way of knowing just how much those injuries affected Bortles. On top of that, we don’t know when Bortles suffered the injuries and when they affected him the most, so it is difficult to create a timeline.

We can, however, note that Bortles played his best two games of the season in Week 16 and Week 17. He threw for over 300 yards in both games without tossing an interception, which is a feat that happened on only one other occasion this season. That game came in Week 8 against the Tennessee Titans, which is worth noting, since his Week 16 mini-revival game also came against the Titans.

Gus Bradley was fired on Dec. 18 after the Jaguars loss to the Houston Texans, so two of Bortles’s best games of the season came shortly after Bradley was fired.

It seems far too simplistic to say that Bortles’s two-game resurgence was the result of the coaching change, but Bradley received even more heat than Bortles did during the 2016 season. Bradley made several questionable personnel decisions, including one on defense when he chose to play Dan Skuta over Myles Jack, this season, and his teams never seemed prepared. Players like Ivory had their worst seasons in Jacksonville, so it is more than fair to question the judgment of a head coach with a 14-48 career record.

Bortles’ success in the final two games of the season remove some of the negativity surrounding his awful season, and it has more to do with the fact that he played well. Anybody can put together two good games.

What makes Bortles’ final two games capable of producing optimism is the timing of them. With news that Bortles played through an injury, it is fair to wonder if he was at his healthiest in the final two games. Since Doug Marrone replaced Bradley as the head coach, it is also fair to wonder if Bortles’ struggles may have been due to bad coaching, in addition to injury issues.

The next head coach of the Jaguars will have to work with Bortles, and the considerations of Bortles’ injury and Bradley’s poor coaching could make the next head man more optimistic about the young quarterback. While this paints Bortles in a positive light, he cannot be absolved of his glaring weaknesses. Bortles has never completed 60 percent of his passes in this league, he averages at least one interception per game, and his career QB Rating is under 80.0.

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We’ve seen how injuries impacted Peyton Manning in 2014-15, Andrew Luck in 2015, and Russell Wilson earlier this year, but Bortles didn’t exactly have the pre-injury track record that these men did. As Ryan Fitzpatrick‘s 2015 season can attest, high yardage and touchdown stats have a way of shrouding a quarterback’s deficiencies. Bortles put up such exciting numbers in 2015 that we neglected to comb over the issues that remained, and these issues were likely exacerbated by the less favorable circumstances that arose this season.