Toward the end of the week, the Jacksonville Jaguars pulled off a trade with the Cleveland Browns that sent RB Carlos Hyde from Ohio to Florida for a 5th-round draft pick. Joel Deering breaks down the trade more here.
On the surface, it looks like a win-win for both teams. But coupled with what happened today in Jacksonville’s game against the Houston Texans, this trade reveals that Jacksonville’s trust in QB Blake Bortles and their belief that a ground-and-pound team can compete in the NFL today–or at least in 2018–were misguided.
Today, the Jaguars benched Bortles in favor of QB Cody Kessler. (Let that sink in for a minute.) Bortles completed only 6 of 12 pass attempts for a measly 61 yards, and while he didn’t throw any interceptions, he lost two fumbles.
Fourteen games into the 2016 season, with the team at 2-12 and 14-48 after nearly four full seasons under Gus Bradley, the team moved on from him, naming Doug Marrone their interim head coach. Then owner Shahid Khan brought back the team’s first ever head coach, Tom Coughlin, in an executive role. Coughlin kept Marrone aboard.
Together, Couglin and Marrone made a baffling choice. Instead of drafting or signing a replacement for the young, struggling Bortles, they stuck with him. And they used the fourth pick of the 2017 NFL Draft on running back Leonard Fournette out of LSU.
Two of the quarterbacks drafted after Fournette were Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes II to the Kansas City Chiefs with the tenth pick, and then Clemson’s Deshaun Watson to fellow AFC South member, the Texans, with the twelfth pick.
Now, in hindsight, maybe it’s not fair to fault the Jaguars for not believing in either Mahomes or Watson. After all, nine teams passed on Mahomes, while eleven passed on Watson.
But it is curious for this reason alone: Bortles, the third overall pick in 2014 out of Central Florida, had gone 11-34 with 69 touchdown passes and 51 interceptions in mostly three seasons of starting to that point. He wasn’t getting the job done, and the Jaguars new brass had an opportunity to either move on from him or bring in someone to compete with him for the 2017 season.
Instead, they reached for a running back who shined in college–when he wanted to, and it seemed like for a good chunk of his time in Baton Rouge, Fournette didn’t want to play. Still, he put up numbers, and his talent was too tantalizing for Coughlin to pass, especially when he already had a quarterback on board, albeit one who looked like a bust. The plan for 2017 was to ground it out with a competent QB and smothering defense.
The Jaguars had other options at the running back position in the draft, had they chosen to explore them. Some of the running backs selected after Fournette include Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, James Conner, Joe Mixon, Dalvin Cook and Kareem Hunt. Those six have had varying degrees of success, but one thing they all do better than Fournette is catch the ball out of the backfield.
Coughlin decided against waiting to draft a running back, instead opting to select one with the fourth overall pick. And so the Jaguars added Fournette and left the keys to the kingdom in Bortles’ hands. The result was a surprising 10-6 season that had more to do with a suffocating defense than it did with either Bortles or Fournette.
Bortles tossed 21 touchdown passes while throwing a career-low 13 interceptions. He also passed for 3,687 yards, his lowest sixteen-game total of his career. But his QBR was the highest of his career, even if it was only mediocre. He became a competent game manager.
Fournette, meanwhile, played in thirteen games, rushing for just over a thousand yards, adding another 302 yards in the air on 36 receptions. Overall, he scored ten touchdowns–nine on the ground and one through the air.
The Jaguars came up just short of the Super Bowl, squandering a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to the New England Patriots. Bortles finished the day 23-for-36 for 293 yards, a touchdown, and zero interceptions, but took three sacks. Fournette was bottled up, limited to 76 yards rushing on 24 carries.
On Jacksonville’s final drive, though, Bortles’ problems showed up again, as he completed only two of five passes for 37 yards. He was sacked once, and he ended his season with three consecutive incompletions.
This year, the Jaguars are now 3-4. Fournette has played in only two games while battling a hamstring injury. He’s rushed the ball twenty times, gaining 71 yards, having not yet found the end zone.
Bortles, meanwhile, played well in the three of the team’s first four games, leading them to an early 3-1 record. But he faltered badly in Week 3 against the Titans, when the Jags lost 9-6. Then he looked purely awful in a road game in Kansas City, throwing four interceptions during a 30-14 loss. He followed that up with another dud in Dallas, a game the Jaguars lost 40-7.
Now, having lost 20-7 to Houston, the team is under .500, on a three-game losing streak, without a starting quarterback, and hoping that Carlos Hyde can effectively replace Fournette until who-knows-when.
This all could have been avoided before the 2017 season, and then again this past offseason. The Jaguars could have been one of the numerous teams to change starting quarterbacks from the start of the 2017 season. They could have gone after Alex Smith or Kirk Cousins. They also could have taken a stab in the draft for someone like Lamar Jackson.
Had they gone with Mahomes or Watson in the 2017 Draft, they also could have ridden T.J. Yeldon for another year before signing–wait for it–Carlos Hyde in free agency this past offseason.
Yes, hindsight is 20/20, but you know who gets paid the big bucks to make the right decision before anyone else sees it? General managers. Team executives. Coaches. Guys like Coughlin and Marrone.
Since Coughlin and Marrone got it wrong, now Jacksonville is looking at not just one lost season, but numerous. Because that vaunted defense has catered. Because they trusted in Bortles despite the empirical evidence saying run!!! Because they not only drafted a running back in the first round, but did so in the first five picks. What a colossal waste of a splendid resource.
It’s funny considering Coughlin didn’t have success until he connected with a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Eli Manning, but he and the rest of the Jaguars organization are finding this obvious lesson out the hard way:
A team isn’t going to have any success in the NFL today unless that team has a franchise quarterback. Game mangers just won’t cut it.
Hey, Jacksonville: have you met Drew Lock?