Some might call Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles inaccurate because he has the 4th-worst completion rate in the NFL since he entered the league in 2014 (min. 500 attempts), ahead of only Cam Newton, Nick Foles, and Brock Osweiler.
Some might call Bortles inefficient because he has the 7th-worst yards per attempt rate in the NFL, ahead of only Osweiler, Foles, Joe Flacco, Derek Carr, Blaine Gabbert, and Jacoby Brissett.
Some might call Bortles a poor decision maker because his 102 combined interceptions and fumbles over the past four seasons are by far the most in the NFL (Eli Manning and Philip Rivers rank second and third with 93 and 91, respectively).
The New England Patriots, however, don’t look at Bortles through those lenses. They just see a winner.
“It’s kind of crazy, you know, the guy is still playing football,” McCourty said about the criticism Bortles received from players around the league. “All those guys that said that, I’m sure they want to be in his spot right now playing in the championship game. But I’ve seen some of his interviews, and he seems like he has a great attitude, laughing about it and cracking jokes.
“And I think you kind of see that out on the field – the guy is a winner. Whether it’s dropping back and throwing the deep ball in a drive where Pittsburgh cuts it to seven and you need to make a big play and he stays in the pocket and finds [T.J.] Yeldon after surveying the field.
“Or in other games, against Buffalo, he drops back, they drop into coverage, everybody has their back to him, and he scrambles for 15 yards [and] a big first down to keep the drive going.
“To me, you see a winner. A quarterback that is smart and makes all the right plays. When he is out there, he’s trying to put the team in the best situation, and it shows up. I think you can throw out stats and you can do all that stuff, but at the end of the day, the only thing anybody cares about is winning, and obviously his team is playing in the AFC Championship. They’ve won a lot of games this year.”
While these two plays might not special feats of athleticism or quarterbacking, they certainly show a player capable and willing to take the open play for the easy yards and fight another down.
Bortles also has the mobility to force the Patriots to dedicate a spy on him for most of the game.
Don’t believe me? Only Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, and Tyrod Taylor have more rushing yards than Bortles since he entered the league in 2014 and his 22.7 rushing yards per game over that span ranks fourth behind those same three and Colin Kaepernick for quarterbacks with at least 16 starts over that span.
And if you don’t believe that, just listen to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
“He’s played well,” Belichick said about Bortles. “He’s got a very high rushing average. When he carries the ball, he carries it productively whether that’s to scramble or on designed runs. He throws the ball efficiently like he did in the Pittsburgh game. He makes good decisions.
“He’s a big, strong tough guy that’s hard to bring down, hard to tackle. He’s got a lot of good receivers, good tight ends, good backs. He’s got a lot of weapons. A good offensive line. Offensively, as an entire unit they are very productive and they are very well balanced. He makes it all go. He’s the trigger man that makes it all happen. They do a good job.”
The very first strength Belichick lists for Bortles is his rushing ability, which indicates how high keeping Bortles in the pocket will be on the list of defensive responsibilities. Look for linebacker Marquis Flowers to have another solid encore performance after he locked down Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota for much of the divisional round.
Bortles is not without his strengths as a passer, too. His 20 touchdown passes on throws within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage trailed only Tom Brady (28), Jared Goff (25), Ben Roethlisberger (22), and Drew Brees (22) and his passer rating of 91.7 on those throws is not dissimilar to that of Matthew Stafford (92.3) or Kirk Cousins (92.8).
Bortles isn’t just checking down to the running back on throws shorter than 15 yards, either. He’s throwing it to Marqise Lee (73 targets), Keelan Cole (61), Allen Hurns (45), and Dede Westbrook (41). Sure, Leonard Fournette and T.J. Yeldon combined for 100 targets on these throws in 2017, but Bortles is making sure every player gets a chance to touch the ball and completes 66.2% of these passes, which is in line with Jared Goff (66.6%) and Carson Palmer (65.4%).
The Jaguars fourth-year quarterback is also surprisingly solid when quarterbacking in the winter. In September, October, and November over the past three seasons, Bortles has a passer rating of 81.1, 83.3, and 78.4, respectively, all below average levels of play and similar to Eli Manning (80.4) and Joe Flacco (80.4).
But in the winter months of December and January, Bortles has a passer rating of 90.1, which is similar to the season-long rating for Ben Roethlisberger (93.4), Matt Ryan (91.4), and Derek Carr (86.4). That’s a pretty notable increase in production.
Now the house comes crumbling down when Bortles throws it 15 or more yards down the field. His passer rating of 62.8 is among the worst in the league (the league average is 80.7) and it’s pretty clear that is how the Patriots will want to target Bortles.
New England is stack the box and flood the short areas of the field to prevent Leonard Fournette or Bortles from running the ball and force Bortles to hold on to the ball in hopes that something will develop down the field. New England will be fine if Bortles takes risky deep shots because that is far more preferable to him leading extended drives with short completions.
Bortles is not a great quarterback, but he’s good enough to exploit any poor decisions by the Patriots defense and he can make a few plays to extend drives. New England will likely focus on eliminating Fournette and challenge Bortles’ ability to win the game with his arm- and see if he can carry the offense on his own.