The Jacksonville Jaguars had a 2-11 record in December 2016 as they prepared for a game at Houston, one that would go down as the last in coach Gus Bradley’s tenure.
Among the topics surrounding a team long out of the playoff race was a peculiar trend involving quarterback Blake Bortles. In each of the prior three games against the Texans, he had thrown an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
Asked how to avoid continuing his dubious streak for a fourth game — which, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, had never happened — Bortles offered a bit of humor.
“I’ve got to be a better tackler,” he deadpanned.
More than two years later, no other comment so perfectly epitomizes the legacy left behind by Bortles, who was released as expected by the Jaguars shortly after free agency began Wednesday, ending his five-year run with the franchise.
Among the most easy-going players the Jaguars have ever had, Bortles also will be remembered as someone who ultimately could not achieve an acceptable level of consistency.
As a result, the Jaguars signed quarterback Nick Foles to a four-year, $88 million contract, hoping he can revive an offense that went belly up during the team’s disastrous 5-11 season in 2018.
The Jaguars opted not to designate Bortles as a post-June 1 cut, meaning his contract will count $16.5 million in dead money on the team’s 2019 salary cap, per overthecap.com. Bortles would have had a $21 million cap number this season after signing a three-year extension in February 2018, so his release amounts to $4.5 million in savings.
Bortles, who turns 27 next month, is a free agent and can sign with another team.
“I’m confident I’ll get an opportunity to play football, whether it’s here or elsewhere, next year,” Bortles said in December. “I’ve got to make sure I’m taking care of myself and getting healthy and getting ready to go so when I get that shot, whether it’s here or somewhere else, I’ll be ready to go.”
The third overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Bortles ends his Jaguars career with a 24-49 record in 73 regular-season starts and a 2-1 mark in the playoffs. During the regular season, Bortles threw 103 touchdowns and 75 interceptions and posted a quarterback rating of 80.6.
Bortles, drafted out of UCF, took over as the team’s starter for Chad Henne at halftime of the Jaguars’ 2014 Week 3 loss to Indianapolis and did not relinquish that role during the regular season until he was benched by coach Doug Marrone after Week 12 last season amid a seven-game losing streak.
In 75 regular-season games (73 starts plus two appearances off the bench), Bortles completed 59.3 percent of his passes for 17,646 yards. An underrated athlete throughout his career, he also ran 281 times for 1,775 yards and eight touchdowns. His average of 6.32 yards per rushing attempt is the highest in franchise history among those with at least 50 carries.
Bortles ranks second in the franchise record books in career passing yards (Mark Brunell — 25,698), touchdown passes (Brunell — 144) and interceptions thrown (Brunell — 86).
In 2015, Bortles set single-season franchise marks for passing yards (4,428) and touchdown passes (35). He also holds single-season Jaguars records for pass attempts (625 in 2016) and completions (368 in 2016).
Asked in December how he hoped to be remembered by fans, Bortles said: “Just as a quarterback, as a guy that would do anything for his team, played as hard as he could and just tried to win football games. You know, it’s been an interesting five years. There’s been all kinds of ups and downs and peaks and valleys.
“Obviously, coming off of , everybody had high expectations going into the year and we didn’t live up to that. We didn’t live up to the expectations and the bar that we set for ourselves, and that’s something that we’ve got to live with as a team and as a group of men.”
Despite his shortcomings, the peak with Bortles was high: The Jaguars posted a 10-6 record in 2017 — their only winning season with him on the roster — and captured an AFC South title. They squeaked by Buffalo (10-3) in a wild-card game and outlasted Pittsburgh (45-42) in a divisional game in which Bortles made important plays.
A week later, the Jaguars held a 10-point fourth-quarter lead at New England with the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance at stake. However, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw a pair of late touchdowns to win the game.
Bortles finished the 2017 playoffs with three touchdown passes and no turnovers. He completed 57.6 percent of his passes for 594 yards and rushed 17 times for 121 yards, including 88 yards against the Bills.
That, in part, convinced front office chief Tom Coughlin to sign him to a contract extension.
Had Coughlin and general manager Dave Caldwell not reached that decision, Bortles could have played on his fifth-year option in 2018 for just over $19 million. By doing the deal, the Jaguars lowered Bortles’ 2018 cap number to $10 million but also risked having unwanted future obligations if his trajectory went awry.
And it did — in grand fashion.
Bortles threw 13 touchdown passes and totaled 15 turnovers (11 interceptions and four lost fumbles) in 2018. He was particularly brutal in a Week 5 loss at Kansas City, throwing a career-high four interceptions and losing a fumble in a 30-14 loss that began the Jaguars’ seven-game losing streak. They were 3-1 entering that game.
“We hit our goals for the first quarter and won the first quarter of the season and then to have it just kind of fall off with the injuries and stuff like that, that was the frustrating part because you saw the glimpse of what this team could have done had it stayed healthy,” Caldwell said at the NFL’s Scouting Combine.
Injuries, particularly along the team’s offensive line, were a major issue after the first month of the season. But there was no overlooking how poor quarterback play also affected the team. Marrone, desperate for a spark, benched Bortles and fired offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett on Nov. 26, a day it became clear the Jaguars were likely to move on from Bortles sooner rather than later.
Cody Kessler started four games and was mostly ineffective in place of Bortles, who returned to start the finale at Houston.
Bortles, who never avoided pointed questions from the media and took a remarkable amount of criticism from opponents, was equally generous in the community.
For example, his foundation, which focuses on providing support for first responders as well as people with intellectual and developmental challenges, provided free meals for many who worked following the mass shooting at the Jacksonville Landing in August.
Bortles was often happy to talk about upcoming events with his foundation, and rarely was any topic off limits.
Last year, Bortles said he understood why most of the blame for a bad season was directed at him.
“That’s part of the quarterback’s job description,” Bortles said. “I think when things don’t go well, a lot of it falls on the quarterback’s shoulders. I know that and signed up for that and have no problem with it.
“Whether it’s a scapegoat or whatever you want to call it, somebody’s got to take the blame when things don’t go well. I think [Hackett] was one of those guys, I think I’m one of those guys, and there’s other guys on this team that were part of that as well.”
As they move on from Bortles, the Jaguars are banking on Foles ending a futile stretch of quarterback play that has doomed the franchise to a 32-80 record since owner Shad Khan purchased the team and losing that extends even further back.
Since Brunell was traded to Washington prior to the 2004 season, Bortles and David Garrard are the franchise’s only two quarterbacks to start and a win a playoff game.
That hasn’t stemmed from a lack of trying. The Jaguars used the No. 7 pick on Byron Leftwich in 2003, the No. 10 pick on Blaine Gabbert in 2011 and the third pick on Bortles in 2014.
Bortles is likely to sign with another team in a backup role.