Jags’ self-de­struc­tion starts at quar­ter­back

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - NEWS - Mike Jones

In just three weeks, the Jaguars have gone from promis­ing con­tenders to un­der­per­form­ing and dys­func­tional also-rans.

The boil­ing point was reached Oct. 22 as the team’s los­ing streak ex­tended to three games. Turnover-prone quar­ter­back Blake Bor­tles got benched early in the third quar­ter. And the frus­tra­tions of a sud­denly in­ef­fec­tive de­fense car­ried over into the locker room. Dur­ing postgame me­dia avail­abil­ity, de­fen­sive end Yan­nick Ngak­oue had to be re­strained from a team­mate, and mul­ti­ple play­ers could be heard ar­gu­ing even af­ter re­porters were kicked out of the locker room pre­ma­turely.

What a stark con­trast from nine months ago, when Jack­sonville found it­self 10 min­utes away from ad­vanc­ing to the Su­per Bowl be­fore col­laps­ing at New Eng­land. With a 31-20 win over the Pa­tri­ots in Week 2, it ap­peared the same Jaguars earned a bit of re­demp­tion.

But here they are, mired in the ugli­est of funks at 3-4. A de­fense that last year ranked first in the NFL in scor­ing, lim­it­ing op­po­nents to just 14 points per game, has given up a com­bined 90 points in three con­sec­u­tive de­feats. Bor­tles’ sec­ond fum­ble Oct. 22 rep­re­sented Jack­sonville’s ninth turnover in 10 quar­ters.

The in­fight­ing was noth­ing new. The Jaguars had their spats dur­ing the pre­sea­son, but start­ing off 3-1 served as a Band-Aid for those is­sues. Now, with Jack­sonville’s de­fense crum­bling un­der the weight of the of­fense’s short­com­ings, the frac­tures — among team­mates and even coaches — are again ev­i­dent.

“You all walk in here, you all see how it is in here, you all see how we vibe with each other,” cor­ner­back Jalen Ramsey told re­porters. “You all see how we vibe to­wards the coaches, you all see how it is. It is no se­cret what’s go­ing on here right now. Ain’t no­body go­ing to say it be­cause we can’t, but it ain’t no se­cret what’s go­ing on and it ain’t right right now. It is what it is.”

The Jaguars are im­plod­ing, and man­age­ment has no one to blame but it­self.

Fin­ish­ing with a 10-6 record and its first-ever AFC South ti­tle, Jack­sonville was one of the big­gest sur­prises of last sea­son. The de­fense car­ried the team through­out the sea­son and deep into the play­offs. The Bor­tles-led of­fense was lim­ited but did enough to get by.

Quar­ter­back re­mains the big­gest stum­bling block for this team, even with the de­fense’s re­gres­sion. Ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of foot­ball op­er­a­tions Tom Cough­lin and coach Doug Mar­rone had a chance to dra­mat­i­cally up­grade this po­si­tion this off­sea­son. In­stead, they set the franchise back by giv­ing Bor­tles a three-year, $54 mil­lion con­tract ex­ten­sion rather than pur­su­ing a first- or sec­ond-tier quar­ter­back via free agency or trade. They also passed on the chance to move up in the draft for one of this year’s ta­lented rook­ies. Any num­ber of moves would have given the team an up­grade over Bor­tles or in­surance if he didn’t fur­ther de­velop into a con­sis­tent qual­ity starter (as is the case now).

But the Jaguars in­stead stood pat.

They did so know­ing Bor­tles has thrown more in­ter­cep­tions than any other quar­ter­back since he en­tered the league in 2014 (now at 72 with eight this year). Ac­cu­racy has al­ways been an is­sue for Bor­tles, and this sea­son is no dif­fer­ent. His com­ple­tion per­cent­age (60) ranks 29th in the league.

Jaguars brass knew that for Bor­tles to play at his ab­so­lute best, ev­ery­thing around him must be nearly per­fect.

That’s largely why Bor­tles has been so in­ef­fi­cient this year. The of­fense is miss­ing lead­ing wide re­ceiver Mar­qise Lee, who was lost for the year to knee surgery, and top run­ning back Leonard Four­nette, who has missed all but two games this sea­son be­cause of a ham­string in­jury.

But Lee’s and Four­nette’s ab­sences aren’t to blame for Bor­tles’ in­ter­cep­tion and fum­ble woes. His lack of poise and poor de­ci­sion mak­ing are on him.

Third-year pro Cody Kessler doesn’t look like the an­swer, as Mar­rone made clear in stick­ing with Bor­tles this week for the Week 8 Lon­don game against the Philadel­phia Ea­gles.

The only other op­tions would be to trade for a more proven vet­eran (Teddy Bridge­wa­ter? Nick Foles? Colt McCoy?) or sign some­one else off the streets.

At this point, things can’t get much worse.

DOU­GLAS DE­FE­LICE/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Blake Bor­tles has 9 TD passes, 8 in­ter­cep­tions and 4 lost fum­bles.

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