JACKSONVILLE — Swarms of locusts. Plagues of frogs. Darkness for three days.
Doug Marrone can only hope the sign he is looking for to decide Jacksonville’s quarterback competition becomes that obvious.
Unlike the Pharaoh when Moses demanded he free the Israelites in the Old Testament, the Jaguars coach would not be oblivious to what was happening around him if Blake Bortles or Chad Henne were to impress enough to win the job. Since neither has displayed those earmarks yet, Jacksonville enters its third preseason game Thursday night against Carolina as the NFL’s only team besides Chicago without a defined starting quarterback or timetable to name one for the regular-season opener.
“Really I’m just looking for someone to just be the leader of that offense,” Marrone told co-host Mark Dominik and me Monday on SiriusXM NFL Radio. “Lead our offense where that player’s coming in there and people around him are gravitating. They believe in him, they feel like they can take off and get better, and we can have the results that we want.
“Basically, I’m just waiting for someone to take that position … Just to see if someone can make a move.”
Marrone isn’t expecting miracles out of Bortles or Henne. The Jaguars have what they believe is a bell-cow running back in Leonard Fournette to carry much of the offensive load. The defense has enough talent that second-year cornerback Jalen Ramsey isn’t blowing smoke when he says, “Once we get clicking for sure and get rolling, I want to say the sky’s the limit, but I don’t even know if that’s it.”
But without adequate quarterbacking at the minimum, it’s hard to envision the prayers of a franchise that has endured six consecutive losing seasons of 11-plus losses being answered.
Just the fact Marrone must deal with this crisis along with other major question marks surrounding the Jaguars — most notably issues on the left side of the offensive line, the lack of an effective pass-catching tight end, off-field trouble involving defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. and a kicker (Jason Myers) in danger of losing his job — is disappointing onto itself.
Jaguars brass thought their longstanding quarterback woes were solved when Bortles was drafted third overall in 2014. When he replaced Henne four games into that season, there should have been no looking back.
The Jags are instead back to the dark ages at the position.
The progress Bortles made in his first two seasons stopped in 2016. His mechanics disintegrated to the point that an offseason quarterbacks coach was brought in during the regular season to try and better Bortles’ poor footwork and throwing motion. That didn’t work, nor did being supported by one of the NFL’s top young wide receiver corps.
Bortles failed to complete 60 percent of his passes for a third straight season. His penchant for turnovers also continued with 16 interceptions, giving him a career total of 51 in 46 career games. And the biggest disappointment: Bortles finished 3-13 as a starter, which contributed to the in-season firing of coach Gus Bradley.
Even so, Marrone and new football czar Tom Coughlin thought Bortles could be fixed. Signs were encouraging enough in May that the Jaguars picked up the fifth-year option on Bortles’ rookie contract that comes with a $19 million salary if he’s on the roster in 2018.
At this rate, Bortles will not be on the roster in 2018.
Bortles’ performance in last Thursday’s preseason matchup against Tampa Bay triggered a new wave of fan and media criticism. The biggest knocks were two badly missed passes to wide receiver Allen Robinson that reflected his accuracy issues. This came on the heels of Robinson’s obscenity-filled criticism of Bortles following an incompletion during practice became public fodder.
Marrone was so discouraged after the Bucs game that he declared the first-string spot open. As of Tuesday morning, Marrone hadn’t publicly named a starter against Carolina or how snaps between Henne and Borthes would be split. The Jaguars are sensitive enough about the topic that Bortles and Henne were made off-limits to the media heading into the game.
Henne could find himself playing again in the regular season for the first time since he was benched for Bortles. But while his misfires this preseason aren’t nearly as egregious, Henne has not done anything dynamic enough to convince Jags management that sticking with Bortles through his struggles and hoping he works through them isn’t their best option.
The quarterback picture is so murky that Marrone acknowledged he may be forced to extend the competition into the fourth preseason game — which is normally played by reserves — unless Bortles or Henne flashes against the Panthers.
“I just think it’s very important to me at least to be able to just ‘see it,'” Marrone said. “I think when you see it, you’ll know it.
“The timeline for me is, ‘Let’s get it done now.’ I want it done now. But if it doesn’t show itself, you can’t do that … You just want to see someone rise up, take it and then just move on.”
Bortles might be moving on sooner than later if Henne wins the job and the Jaguars are comfortable with 2016 sixth-round pick Brandon Allen or an NFL veteran not on the current roster becoming the backup (Before you ask, a source told Sporting News that Colin Kaepernick isn’t on Jacksonville’s radar at this time).
The Jaguars would then have to decide whether it’s worth the risk of Bortles getting hurt and not being medically cleared in time for the start of the 2018 offseason, which would guarantee his $19 million salary. The most likely options would be releasing Bortles outright or keeping him on the roster but not having him play this season, a la what Washington did with quarterback Robert Griffin III under the same scenario in 2015.
Ideally for the Jaguars, Bortles emerges from this rough stretch, becomes the starter and resumes building upon the things that helped him toss 35 touchdown passes in 2015. If not, Henne shows the ability to connect on big passes and becomes less of a check-down QB than when he first started sitting on the bench two-plus years ago.
I’m told Bortles and Henne are both personally liked by their teammates, and the Jaguars players I spoke with didn’t seem to be pulling in either direction as to who starts. The biggest thing they want is for a decision to get made.
Marrone wishes he could.
“You can lose credibility as a coach if you put someone in there the players don’t feel or believe in that that person is the right player,” Marrone said. “I know as a former player I felt that way going into it. You should a player be able to (say), ‘I know why he’s starting,’ because you’ve watched the practices, you’ve practiced against him, you know your teammate, you know what he’s doing. And then, obviously, it’s a result-oriented business. We have not won a lot of football games. We’ve got to put a team together that can go out there and compete and win games.”
Amen — no matter who is under center.
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