Heading into the Jacksonville Jaguars’ second preseason game against the Chicago Bears, there was zero quarterback controversy — the Jaguars have made darned sure of making that clear — but there was the rhetorical to consider: What if anointed starting quarterback Henne struggled and first-round pick Bortles, he who must wait, continued to light it up?
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That storyline was thwarted, with a twist.
Henne came out and diced up the Bears’ zone defense early Thursday night, and even with settling for two field goals in the first two possessions, the Jaguars came away with a 13-point, 26-offensive-play first quarter thanks largely to the passing game, which looked good when the team went to a medium-fast tempo.
Henne completed 12-of-17 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown in three series and gave the Jaguars the evidence they needed to back up their plan of sticking with Henne for now and saving Bortles for (suppressed laughter) 2015. Or whenever.
"I thought Chad had a great game," Jaguars offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch told Shutdown Corner after the game.
He did. His touchdown pass to Marqise Lee was strong, and his 20-yard throw to Mike Brown might have been Henne's best throw of the night. But is there anything Bortles can do to force the coaches' hands and make them veer off the course they've set since the minute they selected Bortles third overall?
"No. Not right now," Fisch said. "Chad will keep competing, and Blake will try to keep improving. We tell them: compete against yourself. Don’t compete against the other person."
Bortles’ first pass was a total dud, but he followed that with a flurry of precise, confident throws often on a dime against tight coverage. Playing mostly with second-team Jaguars players against second-team Bears defenders — no matter — the tempting elements of a future franchise quarterback were on display. Some of the throws were borderline cocky.
"I’ve kind of always been like that. Maybe more than I should be," Bortles told Shutdown Corner. "I’ve tried to tone that down a little bit — measure the risk-reward, take the safer throws, take what they give you, that type of attitude.
"But there are times to take shots and know the risk involved. You want to get the ball downfield with a completion or a PI [pass interference]. I think we’re doing some of that."
Bortles completed 11-of-17 passes for 160 yards with zero turnovers and zero sacks taken, bringing his two-game preseason totals to 18-of-28 passing for 277 yards — nearly 10 yards per pass attempt. The Jaguars stalled three times on the Bears’ side of the field, settling for one field goal, on Bortles' watch. But his throws, often on the move, had traces of future greatness.
"Both quarterbacks did a really nice job, I thought," Bradley said. "I think Blake had a few more yards; there was that one [45-yard pass] he threw at the end of the half there. Chad did a really nice job in getting us in scoring drives."
There it is. Again, Bortles — and we — must wait. Patience has become a virtue for Bortles, who said the Jaguars have not veered from the message they gave him on draft day back in May. He even believes it has taken some pressure off him along the way.
"It’s an unbelievable situation," Bortles said. "Day One, they said, ‘We’re going to eliminate the stress and anxiety. You’re the backup quarterback, and you need to try to go out and get better.’
"So I think, as the person going through it, you have to have the right mindset about it. The competitor in me wants to be the starter. But you have to understand your role and understand your situation and yet also not get complacent and say, ‘I’m happy to be the backup.’"
Three throws in particular stood out from Bortles’ night. On his first series, he ran a play-action bootleg and threw a dart to Brown for 24 yards and a first down before the half. The bootleg series figures to be a staple in the Jaguars’ offense no matter who is under center.
"We feel like if we’re going to be a wide-zone [running] team that has to be a big part of our offense," Fisch said. "It’s kind of a core play for us. We consider it kind of a run. We feel it should be a high-percentage play. We might have dropped one, but for the most part we were able to move the football while doing it. We got out clean with it. It’s a big part of the offense because it marries to the run game."
In the first drive of the third quarter, Bortles authored a perfect pump-and-go, looking off the safety to the right side of the field and coming back all the way to the left to hit Kerry Taylor for 29 yards. The throw dropped right over the shoulder of Bears cornerback Demontre Hurst, who was in man coverage, and feathered into Taylor’s hands.
Bortles called it his best throw of the night, and Fisch said that the rookie checked to that play pre-snap.
"To check into that play and make that throw was pretty cool," Fisch said.
Added Bortles: "I thought that was a good opportunity — 2nd-and-1 there — for us to take a shot."
Bortles’ other most impressive throw actually fell incomplete. Backed up at his own 6-yard line, he rolled off another bootleg into his own end zone, faced serious pressure from Bears defensive end David Bass and yet effortlessly drilled a pass in between three defenders to receiver Chad Bumphis, who was half a step out of bounds.
That's one of those high-risk, high-reward-type plays.
"We had a ‘smash’ concept with a hitch, and Bump was running a corner [route]," Bortles said. "The guy that almost made the play was the guy that was all over the [hitch] route to begin with. If he was all over that, there was no way he was going to get back and make a play [on the corner route]. It’s a high-risk throw and Bump almost made the play.
"There are definitely throws that I am confident in and confident that my guy will make the play."
You can’t blame a team such as the Jaguars for taking the long view on their team, and especially respective to the quarterback position. For a franchise blessed to come out of its inception with Mark Brunell, the team’s all-time passing leader and an underrated player from his generation, the next several experiments have failed miserably.
Byron Leftwich never lived up to the billing of being taken with the No. 7 overall pick. David Garrard was a solid starter who helped deliver one playoff appearance in his four years of starting but always left the team wanting to upgrade. And Blaine Gabbert only can be called a huge miss, going from the 10th overall pick to peddled away for a throwaway selection a mere three years later following a 5-22 mark as a starter.
And even though those players came from different regimes, Bradley, his offensive staff and GM Dave Caldwell made a plan and have stuck with it. There's little reason right now, even with Bortles shining, to think it will change. Henne falls under the category of caretaker for now, and though his career story hasn’t been fully written, it almost certainly won’t end with salvation — at least not in Jacksonville — even if he exceeds expectations this season.
As for Bortles, he's playing his role, and if he happens to make it a tough decision on the Jaguars' coaches over who starts and when, then the Jaguars will have succeeded in speeding up his growth process.
"We’re trying to build this body of work for him, not just in practice situations but [also] in games," Bradley said. "He saw more looks tonight than he did last week. I think he had good poise — the backed-up possession, the one that was incomplete — he had that throw on the run. He’s starting to grow confidence."
Bradley hinted after the game, as he did earlier in the week, that Bortles — who has yet to take a first-team rep in OTAs, training camp or the preseason — might start to work in with the starters some.
"Whether or not it’s going to be this week or not, we’ll see," Bradley said.
Bortles has no clue what's in store on that front. He's just going off the message he has heard to this point and plans to keep pressing as if he were competing for a starting job and see where it takes him.
"I have no idea," he said. "Right now, I know I am with the twos. I know I am the backup quarterback. I am going to do what I do and run with whoever they want me to run with."
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