JACKSONVILLE – A trip to Glendale, Arizona, to play the Arizona Cardinals in November 2017 was about the Jaguars pushing toward the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
But a quirky set of circumstances involving quarterbacks, past and present, couldn't be overlooked. All three quarterbacks the Jaguars had drafted in the first round to that point were on the field, but only one of them wore the Jaguars uniform.
The No. 3 overall pick from 2014, Blake Bortles started for the Jaguars that afternoon. The No. 9 overall pick from 2011, Blaine Gabbert started for the Cardinals. The No. 7 overall pick from 2003, Byron Leftwich coached Gabbert.
All three were hailed as the franchise quarterback on the evening they were selected by the Jaguars, and none lasted with the franchise more than five seasons.
Gabbert looked the part: tall, muscular with a rocket for a right arm and long flowing locks that earned the nickname "Sunshine" in Missouri and Jacksonville. Motivated by the first chance to face his former team, he gave the Cardinals a 13-3 halftime lead by completing 11 of 14 passes and a beautiful 29-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ricky Seals Jones.
Bortles was less efficient in that first half, with nine completions in 16 attempts. Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette struggled with 18 rushing yards and Bortles was sacked three times.
Bortles' arm wasn't as strong as Gabbert's, but he displayed guts in the pocket and grittiness that characterized his style of play. After taking a big and very late hit that gave the Jaguars field position, Bortles scrambled around the left end for 28 yards and a first and goal.
He capitalized on that on fourth down, rushing to narrow the Cardinals' lead to 16-10.
It only felt like the Jaguars had momentum because both quarterbacks and both offenses were ineffective until early in the fourth quarter. That was when Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue sacked Gabbert and forced a fumble that defensive end Calais Campbell recovered in his first game against his longtime team.
Campbell scooped the ball up and no one was getting in the way of the 6-feet-8 defensive end whose touchdown gave the Jaguars to their first lead of the game at 17-16.
Here's where the storyline got good – because the quarterbacks took center stage. Down by a point, Gabbert went deep with a beautiful rainbow pass to wide receiver Jaron Brown for a 52-yard touchdown and then found Larry Fitzgerald for the two-point conversion to give the Cardinals a seven-point lead.
Running back Corey Grant set Bortles and the Jaguars' offense up with a 68-yard return on the ensuing kickoff. After a few short passes, Bortles scored his second rushing touchdown of the game, rolling around the left end and scooting through and around defenders for a 17-yard touchdown.
The first-round picks were showing their best stuff – until the next drive. Gabbert went deep to Chad Williams, but Jaguars safety Barry Church stepped in the way to intercept.
Bortles, with a chance to get the lead back and climb a notch above Gabbert, was fooled by Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu. Bortles rolled up the right sideline looking for Dede Westbrook. Mathieu hid behind the defenders until the last moment and Bortles didn't see him until the ball was in his hands.
Back-to-back touchdown drives, back-to-back drives with interceptions.
It fit the profile of both men and why neither was the answer in Jacksonville. Gabbert got the last word in Glendale that afternoon, driving the Cardinals to the Jags 39-yard line with a beautiful throw to running back DJ Foster.
A Phil Dawson field goal from 57 yards ended the Jags three-game winning streak in a 27-24 loss.
I walked by the three men – Leftwich, Gabbert and Bortles – talking in the concourse after the game. I said hello and almost asked for a photo. I thought better of it. I wasn't sure how the request would go over with two men who never made it and a third who would finish that season with a flourish but who would also fade away.
It's a nice memory from a really strange set of circumstances.
WEEK 3 · Sun 09/26 · 1:00 PM EDT