It appears the wheels have officially come off.
In just three weeks, the Jacksonville Jaguars have gone from a promising contender to an underperforming and dysfunctional bunch.
The boiling point was reached Sunday 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 post-game 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 a game, has given up a combined 90 points in three straight defeats. Bortles’ second fumble on Sunday represented Jacksonville’s ninth turnover in 10 quarters.
Sunday’s 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 once 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 on Sunday. “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 for 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 that Bortles has thrown more interceptions than any quarterback since he entered the league in 2014 (now at 72 with eight this year). They knew that he fluctuates between game manager and game blower. 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 due to a hamstring injury.
But Lee and Fournette’s absences aren’t to blame for Bortles’ interception and fumble woes. His lack of poise and poor decision-making skills are on him.
Marrone said after Sunday’s loss that he benched Bortles “to try and get a damn spark from this football team to put everyone on notice."
"They have to focus and go out there and play better," he said. "At points in the second half, they did it. That's not fair to the quarterback, but that's how the business is."
Yet Marrone said Monday he would stick with Bortles as his starter for the upcoming London game against the Philadelphia Eagles, claiming the move "gives us the best opportunity to win.”
The Jaguars’ business didn’t have to be this way, though. Better foresight at the most important position could have prevented much of this.
Now, however, Marrone and Co. have a mess on their hands. Third-year pro Cody Kessler stepped in on Sunday, but he doesn’t look like the answer, as Marrone made clear in sticking with Bortles this week.
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.
Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.
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