The Jacksonville Jaguars have made it clear through their actions during the 2017 offseason that they're giving quarterback Blake Bortles one more shot to prove himself. The team picked up his fifth-year option, but the reality is that if he can't show he can get the job done this upcoming season, quickly, his time with the Jaguars will be over. There has been a lot of talk about taking the pressure off Bortles, him just needing to be the rudder of the ship and helping him out, but what does that all mean?
What should the expectations for Blake Bortles be?
The Jaguars used the No. 4 overall pick to draft LSU running back Leonard Fournette. The team also traded up in the second round to pick offensive lineman Cam Robinson and replaced left tackle Kelvin Beachum with veteran Branden Albert, who the team acquired from the Miami Dolphins for a seventh-round pick. Other wise, the Jaguars offense remains largely the same as it did during his disappointing 2016 season and his promising 2015 season. Sure, they've pieced together a few things here and there, but for the most part, the personnel isn't all that different.
The general idea heading into the 2017 season however, is that the Jaguars will shift to more of a ball control type of offense according to VP of football Tom Coughlin, which should help take some pressure off Bortles. Most of the time with the talk of Bortles, it ends up devolving into people pointing to his 2015 season. His 2015 was pretty good, though it had his flaws. I'm not going to say that he picked up a lot of garbage time stats, because I think that's a lazy write off of his play. He played well, for the most part, but he did benefit from playing behind nearly every game, not necessarily garbage time.
Bortles was a volume passer in 2015, throwing the ball over 600 times. He was at the top of the league in attempts in 2015, as well as this past season, but the results were very different. The 2015 season is a bit weird one to evaluate and point back to, because it wasn't necessarily a consistent season. It was a season that relied on a lot of high variance plays (50/50 balls to Allen Robinson, for instance) rolling in the Jaguars favor. As you know, with anything high variance, it can end up going the wrong way and you can get in a rut. That's part of what happened in 2016, in that you had a quarterback with accuracy and ball placement issues also lose the roll on the 50/50 throws, which also took away a ton of the chunk plays the Jaguars relied on in 2015 (40+ yard passing plays reduced by more than half). Not to mention when the games are closer, missing on those shots become more harmful. When you're chasing the game, you can get away with those shots because you're still going to be chasing even if you score. When the game is closer and you need to control the clock, missing on those plays more often than not can hurt you with quick three-and-outs.
The volume for Bortles in 2016 didn't change much, and actually it increased, but his overall numbers took a total nose dive. The last two seasons Bortles has had over 600 attempts and was close to 500 attempts in 14 games his rookie year. The idea is to scale that back for Bortles, but in doing so will also scale back his overall production quite a bit, since Bortles relied a lot on volume for his numbers.
With the pick of Fournette and the plan, which the team has more or less told us publicly, to get back to more of a ball control style offense Bortles is going to be throwing the ball significantly less. And when I say significantly, I'm talking potentially nearly in half. The natural comparison has been to former Jaguars quarterback David Garrard back in 2007, when the team went to a total ball control offense with Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew both nearly rushing for 1,000 yards. You also had the 2011 season when Maurice Jones-Drew led the NFL is rushing with over 1,600 yards.
People have even talked about what if you can get a 2011 rushing game with Fournette and the return of 2015 Bortles, what could the Jaguars accomplish with the defense we all think will be good in 2017? The problem is, those two seasons cannot coexist. You can't have the volume numbers Bortles had in 2015 while simultaneously having the run game the team had in 2007 and 2011. It just just doesn't work like that. Those 2007 and 2011 teams threw the football just over 10 times less per game because they got yardage on the ground, converted drives and chewed up clock.
Looking back at the 2011 team, their play selection was about as close to a 50/50 split as you can get. The team ran 49 percent of the time and threw the ball 51 percent of the time, the same split was there with the 2007 team with Garrard. That's almost perfect balance and likely to be a bit closer to what the 2017 Jaguars will want to get to, unlike their split in 2016 which was running the ball on a shocking 35 percent of their plays and throwing the other 65 percent of the time. It wasn't much different in 2015 either, with the split being 33/67 run/pass. The difference was the offense produced numbers in 2015.
So, after all that I come back to my question of: What should we expect out of Blake Bortles in 2017?
I think it's clear the plan is to significantly reduce his number of attempts, but by how much? Since we keep looking back at 2007 and 2011, we will look at their splits. As mentioned, it was 49/51 run/pass, so for the sake of example and argument we will assume the Jaguars in 2017 are going to shoot for a 49/51 split, because why else would you pick a running back fourth overall if you're not going to run the ball?
If the Jaguars are going to go this route, and as I mentioned for this we're going to assume they are, then Bortles production is going to take a big hit because his number of attempts is going to decrease by a significant margin. He shouldn't be throwing the ball close to 600 times anymore and if you look back at those 2007 and 2011 teams that were more ball control oriented, the teams threw the ball just under 500 times on the season and ran roughly 930-ish total plays overall. The Jaguars in 2015 ran a total of 908 offensive plays (excluding Bortles runs/scrambles) and in 2016 a total of 959 plays (excluding Bortles runs/scrambles). As to be fair and not lean on one season over the other, we'll take the average for the total number of plays, which is 933.5 and we'll round up to 934.
So if we're working 934 total offensive plays with a 49/51 run/pass split, that means Bortles is going to throw the ball 476 times. This represents a reduction in his attempts by 21 and 24 percent from 2015 and 2016, respectively. So if we're reducing his attempts by that much, his numbers will also decrease at roughly the same rate. I'm not a statistician, so I'm sure someone in the comments will tell me I'm doing regression on these numbers all wrong (please do, with explanation and example), but it makes sense to me.
Above is what his numbers in 2015 and 2016 would look like if you decreased everything across the board by those percentages. One looks good and one looks not so good, so we'll say these represent the high and low ends of the spectrum for Bortles in a ball control type of offense. I also wanted to put a mid-range target in there as well, so I took the median of those two seasons.
On the surface, overall these numbers look fine. You clearly don't want the lower end of the spectrum, as the TD:INT ratio is just way too close to being 1:1. This is also under the assumption that the Jaguars run the ball, not just effectively, but well. These are in ideal conditions with a Top 10 run game in the league, at worst. Which, to be honest, is something that we should expect out of the team with the resources they've put into the running back position.
I don't know if that's what they will get, but for the sake of this we will assume they're running the ball well enough to only have their quarterback need to throw the ball under 500 times on the season. You'll also have to remember these numbers are based on a reduction of Bortles numbers the past two seasons, which has had a high variance in performance. Bortles averaged a significantly lower yards per attempt in 2016 versus 2015 and about a 40 yard difference (less) in passing yards per game, with more attempts. There's probably not enough data to get an accurate model, because of how high variance/inconsistent Bortles is passing the football, but I think the above is a pretty realistic discussion point for what to expect in 2017.
Now, if he hits those numbers are they going to win more games? On the high end, absolutely. Probably a significant amount more. On the low end? Probably not enough to make it worth while. But as you can see in comparing the high end and the low end, just how inconsistent his performances are, especially when you make note the team passed the ball more in 2016 than 2015, with about the same effectiveness out of the run game.