NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Brotherhood among all NFL players usually overrides slings and arrows. Verbal shots fired are usually in the spirit of competition and personalities. The fallout often does not last long.
So, I am confused over the open-season sniping on Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles. The tone and consistency of it among his NFL peers is astonishing, bizarre. Bortles gets it from a variety of angles, including nationally from NFL fans and critics. But this nasty drivel oozing from his peers takes it to another level.
In consecutive mid-December home games against Seattle and Houston, Bortles and the Jaguars won. They handled Seattle 30-24 and smashed Houston 45-7.
Afterward, Seattle safety Earl Thomas said: "That was a subpar quarterback."
Afterward, Houston linebacker Jadeveon Clowney was curt and cruel about Bortles, offering a one-word description: "Trash."
And this week, in a radio interview here on 104.5 The Zone, Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey offered this: "As long as Blake Bortles is back there, if the ball game is in his hands, he’s going to choke."
People are stuck on the old Blake Bortles, the one that lost a lot with a franchise that struggled a lot. He was the No. 3 pick in the 2014 draft and his development has been typical of several young quarterbacks, especially those from smaller colleges (Central Florida). He is 25. In his fourth season he has helped lead the Jaguars to a 10-6 record and to the AFC South crown. He’s in the playoffs, at home against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
Only three other starting quarterbacks (Drew Brees, Jared Goff, and Alex Smith) of the eight playing this playoff weekend can say they were good enough to win a division and earn the right to play at home.
The Jaguars rank No. 6 in offense, No. 5 in points scored (417), and own a plus-10 turnover differential that is mightier than New England’s or New Orleans’ or Pittsburgh’s. Bortles’ 192 passing first downs ranks seventh-best in the league.
But this phenomenon of you say Bortles, they frown and spit a foul answer is a climate Bortles changes only with playoff success.
He stood just outside the Jacksonville locker room with me on Sunday and addressed the vitriol this way: "It’s something I’ve lived. George O’ Leary, my college coach, told me a long time ago that when it’s good and we win it’s ‘Us’ and when we lose and it’s bad it’s ‘Me.’ I kind of take that with me. I know shots are taken on Twitter, just about everywhere. I don’t know, I treat pressure in a way where preparation fixes that. And that’s never more important than in a win-or-go-home game."
He was bright-eyed and soft-spoken and direct when he said it, yet the frustration and a touch of sadness was there, too. NFL players desire the respect of their peers. When they don’t get it, when they are mocked, that stings.
Quarterbacks are human, too.
Bortles (6’5, 236 pounds) is a big man with a big goal in these playoffs — it’s time to go and get his.
Titans receiver Eric Weems said it best: "He’s got to go and do him and be himself. In the playoffs, it’s true, you’ve got to be prepared to do everything faster and bigger and quicker. We’ll see."
It starts with the Jaguars creating a way to keep Bortles hungry yet relaxed. The Jaguars must help him deal with this pressure in a way that it does not consume him and derail his play. Much of that is on Bortles.
But that is also on his coaches. It also falls on his teammates.
This was Jaguars coach Doug Marrone’s answer after Jacksonville lost here 15-10, ensuring they enter the playoffs on their first two-game losing streak of the season with all eyes focused on Bortles: "When you’re playing good playoff teams, I’d like to see all three phases, not any one player, win the game. I want the team playing well. That will make the difference."
Marrone was deflecting, deflecting, deflecting from Bortles.
"Blake Bortles is a great leader on an off the field," Jaguars linebacker Carroll Phillips said. "I know the offensive guys for this playoff game are going to dig deep and get something cooked up. Blake is our game manager."
The Jaguars will need Bortles to be more than that.
"We’ve got to make more plays for him," Jaguars running back T.J. Yeldon said. "We moved the ball but we didn’t put points on the board. We’ve got to get the running game going like it has been and that will make it easier for all of us. Blake is one of our leaders. He’s trying to make plays. No matter what people say, he fights for us."
The Jaguars own the league’s top-ranked rushing offense, but it was snuffed by the Titans.
The Titans defense put the game on Bortles and his receivers had their share of drops. His linemen produced their share of blocking whiffs. And Bortles made his share of miscues, finishing with 158 passing yards and two interceptions.
He had the ball trailing by five points for a drive that began at the Jacksonville 34 with 9:19 left and another that began at the Jacksonville 32 with 5:01 left. But both opportunities to go win it ended in punts. After that, Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota produced a stiff-arm run for 13 yards on a third-down quarterback scramble that helped ice the game for Tennessee.
"No. 8 put it on his back," Titans tight end Delanie Walker said of Mariota. "It was late in the game and we needed that. It gave us all a lift."
The Jaguars want to be able to say that about their No. 5, Bortles, in the playoffs.
Bortles methodically takes his time in the pocket when he has time. His arm is strong and he is nimble enough. He has missed due to their injuries some of his more valuable offensive weapons this season. But he has carved a nice season for himself and for the Jaguars.
It was Jaguars owner Shad Khan who said before the season about his quarterback: "He can’t do it alone."
But Bortles knows the more the talk is about “us,” it really boils down to the focus on “me.”
It is easy to sense how much he cares.
"We’ll have his back," Jaguars defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., said. "We can score points on the defensive side, too. We can get more turnovers. He’s a good guy. He cares about winning and his teammates. He works hard. He cares about competing."
Bortles also has a stinging sense of humor.
When asked about the Jaguars entering the playoffs in the lousy trance of a two-game losing streak, Bortles quipped: "I think we’ll be fine. We’ll be able to do it. I know personally, I’ve got a good amount of experience in losing, so we should be able to overcome that."
Blake Bortles knows better than most there is a fine line in this league between a laugh and a cry.