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View from the O-Zone: New season, fresh start for Bortles


JACKSONVILLE – It's his time again, and Blake Bortles knows it.

The Jaguars' quarterback has the first game of the rest of his career Sunday. A new season, a fresh start. That's simplistic, but it may be Bortles' best approach in this regular-season opener, and he assured anyone listening of one thing Wednesday:

He's entering that game healthy. Absolutely.

Bortles' health became at least a small issue Wednesday when he appeared on the Jaguars' injury report with a wrist injury. But he practiced Wednesday and said he's fine.

"It feels good … good to go … a hundred percent," Bortles said of the wrist as the Jaguars prepared to play the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium in Houston Sunday at 1 p.m.

So, there it is: the quarterback is healthy.

What kind of quarterback will that healthy quarterback be?

That is a legitimate question. And it is the question that likely will decide the Jaguars' season. That's true even if the Jaguars execute their well-documented plan to be a run-first, run-second, run-third team, because even if you run really well, at some point quarterbacks decide games. It's what they do.

That has some observers understandably uneasy. Bortles, after all, entered training camp as the starter and struggled enough that head Coach Doug Marrone opened the job to competition with Bortles and Chad Henne. Bortles was re-named the starter, but he has struggled enough in the last year-plus that there are questions.

Bortles is the first to acknowledge this, and the first to acknowledge his struggles. He was asked Wednesday if ever reflected on all he had been through the last couple of seasons.

"Not really," Bortles said. "I try to leave it in the past.  None of it was any good, I don't think."

But just because the above is true doesn't mean it must stay true – and there have been signs in recent weeks of an improved Bortles. He has been accurate during the early portion of practice open to the media. Marrone said shortly after renaming Bortles' the starter position he looked as good as Marrone has seen him look. And even though Bortles was playing against second- and third-teamers, his most recent appearance – Preseason Week 3 – was his best preseason appearance.

That doesn't mean Bortles is Pro Bowl-bound. But maybe it means he can be better than many observers believe. Maybe he can take this opportunity and make the most of it.

And the thought here remains that's Bortles' best approach right now – to look at his current opportunity and realize that's absolutely what it is: An opportunity.

And an incredible opportunity at that.

Think of it: less than a month ago, Bortles lost the hold he had on the job he had held for nearly three years. Many believed he wouldn't regain it ever. Many believed he would be released. That wouldn't have meant his NFL career being over, but it would have meant spending time as a backup, and it would have meant regaining the trust of a new coaching staff and winning another competition to again be a starter.

Nothing's ever guaranteed in the NFL, but a Top 10-drafted quarterback regaining a starting position once he's released by the team that drafted him …

Well, it's a tough road.

Bortles now can avoid that road. He's starting again. He's one of 32. He's doing it with the team that drafted him, and he's doing it for a franchise that obviously wants – and needs – him to succeed.

Sunday is a brutal first step. Houston's defensive front with J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney may represent the NFL's best pass rush. The Jaguars' offensive line didn't appear to be the NFL's best unit in the preseason.

The game could depend on Bortles' pocket poise. On his ability to get rid of the ball to avoid pressure at the right times. On his ability to take advantage of plays when they're there – and even against fierce pass rushes, opportunities in some form or fashion, always arise.

Bortles was asked Wednesday if he was mentally tougher now than before.

"I think you have to be, because if not it would have ruined me or anybody that goes through stuff like that," he said. "I think the old saying, 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger,' as cliché as that is … I think when you go through that and survive it I think you are stronger for it if you don't let it eat at you and ruin you."

That could serve him well Sunday. He must play like a poised, capable veteran. In other words, he must play like the player many believed he was on his way to becoming following his breakout 2015 season.

Remember that '15 season? It's easy to forget sometimes that Bortles at the time appeared to be a rising star that season. Sunday is Bortles' chance to begin rising again. A new season, a fresh start.

It's his team again – and it's once again his time.

And it's up to him to take advantage of the opportunity many thought would never come.

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