If the Pro Football Hall of Fame had a special wing for Garbage Time, they’d already be sculpting Blake Bortles’s bust.
On the surface, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ signal-caller fits the profile of a perfectly mediocre NFL quarterback. But the traditional stats don’t show the true Bortles: He is the NFL’s best when the game is basically over. In garbage time — which we define as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter, when a team is down multiple scores (9 or more points) — Bortles transforms into the franchise quarterback Jacksonville envisioned when they made him the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. In these scenarios in the past two seasons, Bortles has completed 78 of 118 for 964 yards with 12 touchdowns. He’s tossed only four picks. His passer rating in these instances is 111. To get a sense of how good that is, Tom Brady’s rating across all of last season was 112.
Since 2015, 20.7 percent of Bortles’s total touchdown passes have come when the fans are heading for the exits. That’s nearly four times the average for the rest of the league. It’s done little to help the fortunes of the Jags, who have won eight games in the last two seasons and failed to come back in any of the 15 where they were trailing big late. So his body of garbage-time work has been meaningless to everyone except his fantasy owners.
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The only thing Bortles is as good at as posting garbage-time numbers is creating garbage time with his lackluster play in meaningful time. According to ESPN data, last year when a team was within one score (8 or fewer points) in the first half of games — one of the situations in which the game’s outcome is most uncertain — Bortles was the worst quarterback in football. He completed 96 of 158 passes (60.8 percent) last year for 963 yards and just five touchdowns versus eight picks. His rating in these situations was just 67.6. What’s more, in the past two years, Bortles has thrown only half as many touchdown passes in the first quarter of all games (six) as he threw in the last five minutes of games he had already lost.
Bortles throws more garbage-time passes than anyone, partly as a result of his own crummy play earlier in games. By comparison, Brady has only thrown six garbage-time passes in the last two seasons — or 112 fewer than Bortles — because the Patriots are never losing.
It may seem like any quarterback would be more productive when opponents are easing into a prevent defense and beginning to daydream about their next game. But in the last two seasons, the average non-Bortles QB saw his rating increase only marginally in these scenarios, 2.4 percent. Bortles’s rating jumps 37.9 percent.
Despite Bortles’s ability to excel only when the chips are off the table, the Jaguars picked up his fifth-year option in May, meaning they will pay him $19 million in 2018. The move mystified many NFL observers, but general manager Dave Caldwell and new executive vice president Tom Coughlin rationalized that Bortles’s salary over this year and next will still be below average — two words that Bortles is familiar with.
Bortles is not off to a good start in 2017. He threw five interceptions in one recent practice, including one that was returned for a touchdown in 11-on-11 drills. Another pick 6 on Sunday led to head coach Doug Marrone giving veteran backup Chad Henne (who had no pass attempts last year) a chance with the first team. Not only is the patience of Marrone wearing thin, but the team’s No. 1 receiver, Allen Robinson, is reportedly also growing increasingly frustrated.
Maybe the only way to turn Bortles into an efficient quarterback is to somehow convince him that the game is already lost before it’s even begun.