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A View from the O-Zone: Bortles the right guy


CHANDLER'S CROSS, England – The surroundings were new. Unsurprisingly, some of the questions were new, too.

And fittingly, some of the questions were a bit odd.

Blake Bortles sat in a greenhouse – yes, a greenhouse – early Wednesday afternoon. He was an ocean away from EverBank Field, in a venue tucked cozily on the grounds of the somewhat odd, certainly memorable Grove Hotel, a luxurious resort 20 miles outside downtown London.

There was a whole lot new about this experience for Bortles, the Jaguars' rookie quarterback.

New surroundings. New digs. New practice field.

Many of the reporters covering Bortles' media session Wednesday were new too, with the result being that before he got into the ins and outs of just where he is as a quarterback right now he fielded some … well, "different" questions.

Bortles, who has been inundated in recent weeks with questions about interceptions, turnovers and even confidence, was asked what he did in his free time. Bortles talked about liking playing ping pong, going to the beach and just generally being outside.

A reporter asked Bortles if he liked to surf.

"Yeah," Bortles said.

"Cool," the reporter replied.

The exchange drew laughter, as did Bortles' story about how he enjoyed the popular FIFA video game – or at least, how he used to enjoy the popular FIFA video game.

"I played FIFA a lot and thought I was good until I got drafted," he said. "There's guys that that's all they do. I got beat up pretty quick."

Bortles' press conference wasn't all FIFA and surfing, of course. It was mostly about football, confidence and just how he feels about each after two months or so starting in the NFL.

In other words, it was like a lot of Bortles' stateside press conferences.

That meant assessing his play in the most recent game.

"Average," he called his performance in a loss to Cincinnati Sunday.

And you know what? He's right. For a rookie quarterback, he was average on Sunday, just as he has been pretty average so far in eight games.

Which is about what he's supposed to be.

Critics would say that's a soft assessment, that the 13 interceptions Bortles has thrown – with four returned for touchdowns – mean he has been bad rather than average, and that he has hurt the team more than he has helped. On the surface, those critics would have a point.

But those critics would be wrong, because the truth lies beneath the surface.

It's beneath the surface where you see that although Bortles has made mistakes in his six NFL starts – and yes, we're still at that remarkably small number of starts – he has been far more of a benefit than a detriment.

The Jaguars got outscored 105-10 in an eight-quarter span before he entered the lineup at halftime of Week 3 against the Colts. That's a hard statistic to achieve. Really hard.

Since Bortles has entered the lineup, the Jaguars have been in every game at some point in the second half. They have had a chance to win more games than not.

It's true that that's not where you want to be as a franchise, and it's true that it would be better if we were talking playoffs right now. But the Jaguars aren't there yet, so we're talking whether Bortles' presence is helping the Jaguars. And if you think about pre-Bortles and post-Bortles there's no question the post-Bortles version has been a lot closer to what observers anticipated from this season.

That version hasn't been where fans or the Jaguars wanted, but it has been a lot closer, and he has been a huge reason.

His escapability. His pocket presence. His ability to make throws downfield. All of those are there, and if we haven't seen them as much as anticipated, there's still a threat of it and there are signs of it and those things have pushed the Jaguars closer.

"It's probably about right on schedule for what we expected," Jaguars General David Caldwell said Thursday of Bortles' progress. "When we made the move to play him, we thought there would be some highs and some lows and some stuff in between. … What he's really done for us is enable our offense to sustain drives."

Caldwell said that has taken pressure off of the defense, adding that Bortles still has "a long way to go" in terms of decision-making.

"Overall, he's probably right on par for what we expected him to be," Caldwell said.

One question that didn't get asked this week was, "When does his presence mean winning?" There's no way to know. That's the maturation process, the growth process, and there's no timeframe for it.

One question that did get asked was about his confidence – i.e., where it was now, two months into his stint as Jaguars starting quarterback.

Bortles said it was pretty much the same as when he entered the lineup, and when Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley was asked a similar question he gave a similar answer, that he sees little change in the rookie, and that as long as Bortles continues improving and learning from mistakes that's what the Jaguars want from him.

Bradley was asked, too, if the team had ever considered going back to Chad Henne as the starter, meaning go back to the pre-Bortles era.

"Not at all," Bradley said, and that was the right answer.

One reason is you can't go back to a veteran backup after you start a rookie Top 10 pick. Once you make that commitment, it is made and the rookie is your guy until you decide he's not.

But the bigger, short-term reason is Bortles is still making this team better, and still giving them the best chance to win. He's still progressing nicely, as expected.

And that's true whatever the surroundings.

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