JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – There was a time in late August when it appeared Blake Bortles' time as the Jaguars starting quarterback was coming to an end. Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone opened up the quarterback competition, and while neither Bortles nor Chad Henne excelled in the third preseason game, the consensus was that Marrone would move on from Bortles.
Only, he didn't.
Saying that Bortles' mobility was the biggest key, Marrone stayed with the incumbent as the starter. After all, the biggest concern at that time was the porous play of the offensive line and Bortles is more athletic than Henne.
But Bortles responded to the opportunity. After throwing five interceptions in his first six games, Bortles settled in. Starting with the Week 7 win at Indianapolis, Bortles enjoyed the best stretch of football in his career. In the next eight games, Bortles threw 11 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He completed nearly 64 percent of his passes as the Jaguars won seven of eight games to take control of the AFC South.
His improvement was noticed by coaches and players alike.
"He's a completely different human being," Jaguars offensive coordinator Nate Hackett said, comparing Bortles now to when Hackett first started coaching him three years ago. "His mental toughness, blocking out the outside world and all the noise and the voices that are trying to bring him down. Those things for a while got him a little bit. Now it gets him fired up and he wants to be better. That's something great about him."
Bortles has been the most-criticized player on the Jaguars roster for much of his four-year career. Outwardly, it didn't seem to affect him, but those close to him hear the criticism and see the blasts on social media. Bortles said this week that he tries to block out those voices.
"I have family and stuff all over social media and they can’t help but see some of it," Bortles said. "I know it makes them mad because I don’t think anybody would want a loved one or friend or family member being talked about in a negative light that somebody else is playing against them. I’ve talked to my close family and close friends and they understand how I feel about it and know that it doesn’t bother me. I think they do their best to try and do the same.”
One sure sign of Bortles maturation is the way that his teammates talk about him. At one point during a game in which he was miked up, Jaguars defensive tackle Malik Jackson was heard talking about Bortles as a Pro Bowl quarterback. He isn't the only player on the Jaguars roster who has been impressed with what Bortles has shown this year.
"It's incredible to see a guy who is so mentally tough no matter what comes at him," said wide receiver Allen Hurns. "It was a good feeling for me to see him just tune it all out and come to work each and every day and try to improve on his game. As you can see, he's done a great job this year."
Even rookies have noticed a difference in Bortles from the beginning of the year. Leonard Fournette said that he has noted Bortles taking greater ownership of the offense.
"He's 100 percent better than he was," Fournette said. "The first time I got here, he wasn't talking in the huddle. Now he's one of the leaders of the team. Talking. He's more hands-on with the team."
Now Bortles faces the task of bouncing back. In the last two games, Bortles threw five interceptions contributing to five Jaguars losses. Sunday is his first chance on the playoff stage. How he plays will go a long way to determining how deep a playoff run the Jaguars will experience this year.