JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Blake Bortles has plenty of things he wants to improve on over the next several months before the Jacksonville Jaguars begin the 2018 regular season, but he hit the practice field for the team’s first organized team activity with nothing to prove.
That isn’t a position he has been in much in his previous four seasons with the team.
Bortles has a new contract, some new players and playmakers on offense, and a new confidence that comes from playing in an offensive system he likes — a system that helped produce the best season of his career in 2017. That can only be a good thing for the team that came within 10 minutes of making the first Super Bowl in franchise history.
“It’s a little bit unfair because I was just getting to know him last year, but I really did notice a certain level of comfort [on Tuesday] as opposed to a year ago,” quarterback coach Scott Milanovich said. “Now a year ago, I was still learning this offense, too. We kind of leaned on each other a little bit, but his confidence has clearly grown.”
Bortles heads into the 2018 season not worrying about his mechanics and holding onto his job, not answering questions about the team’s decision to pick up his fifth-year option, not trying to prove to his teammates that he can be their leader, not learning a new offense and not adjusting to a new coordinator.
Putting those concerns behind him has been important. Playing quarterback in the NFL isn’t easy, but it is made much simpler when a player can concentrate on deepening his understanding of the offense so adjustments, audibles and tweaks become almost second nature.
“I think any time you feel you get the support of the locker room, that definitely helps just playing quarterback, and I felt that I had that all last year,” Bortles said. “The contract stuff doesn’t really change anything about how I think or how I approach every day. I think the biggest difference going into this year is just the fact that we’re going into Year 2 with [coordinator] Nathaniel [Hackett] and having him calling plays for the second year in a row.
“Having that continuity and being out there, trying to coach the guys and being able to be there and help those guys out rather than this time last year, I’m trying to learn it right there with him.”
Bortles said Hackett tells him regularly that he should know the offense better than anyone else in the building — including Hackett. That might be a bit of a stretch, but Marrone said one of the biggest differences he sees in Bortles from the end of the 2017 season is an increased knowledge and understanding of the “why” part of the offense. As in, why Hackett is calling that particular play at that particular time against that particular defense or front with that personnel group at that particular point on the field.
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“I think that if I have seen anything that would be the difference, it’s that he has a better understanding of what we were doing on offense because last year was the first year,” coach Doug Marrone said. “I have always believed that when your quarterback is ahead of everyone and the rest of the offense has to catch up, that is a pretty good thing. You don’t want the quarterback trying to catch up to the rest of the offensive players. I think that Blake is in a good spot from there, as far as what he knows of the offense, what we want to do.”
Bortles wasn’t there at this point last year. He was in prove-it mode. Even though the team had picked up his fifth-year option — a move that was widely panned by football analysts — and hadn’t drafted or signed a quarterback, Bortles didn’t exactly have a strong hold on his future with the franchise.
Having the worst season of an otherwise average to below-average career will do that to you.
Bortles was a mess in 2016. His mechanics deteriorated to the point that his college offensive coordinator didn’t recognize him, he threw 16 interceptions (including three pick-sixes), and the Jaguars won just three games. By the end of it, Bortles was admittedly somewhat of a mental mess.
He spent much of the early part of the offseason in California working on his mechanics at 3DQB, then had to learn a new offense — his third since he was drafted third overall in 2014. He was learning from Hackett, who was his position coach in 2016 until taking over as the coordinator when then-coach Gus Bradley fired Greg Olson during the season.
Things didn’t go well at first. Bortles had a five-interception practice early in training camp last August and got pulled from a practice days later. Then Marrone opened up the quarterback job after Bortles’ dismal performance in the second preseason game.
But Bortles won the job back, played solidly but not spectacularly for much of the season, was the league’s top-rated quarterback for three weeks in December and played turnover-free football in three playoff games. He completed 60 percent of his passes for the first time and cut down significantly on his turnovers (16, five fewer than his average in his first three seasons).
That landed him a contract extension (three years, $ 54 million, $ 26.5 million guaranteed) and something even more valuable: renewed confidence and some peace of mind.