Many people talk about a sophomore slump. Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles experienced the opposite in his second year in the NFL, having a breakout year as the young Jaguars offense exploded for record numbers (numbers that perhaps overshadowed plenty of work still to be done). But as 2017 has opened with a disappointing 0-3 start, including some poor play by the Jaguars third year signal caller, many are wondering if 2016 was actually an aberration?
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So what exactly are the issues for Bortles and where does the truth lie in what sort of quarterback he really is? We can identify 3 concerns, looking at his decision-making, his poise and his mechanics.
It is worth a quick disclaimer that many will point to the bad coaching as the cause of his downward spiral this season, but noting that his coaches are the same in 2016 as they were last year. How much attribution you can put on the coaches I will leave to the individual reader. But I will suggest that the quality of coaches would determine how to get the best out of Bortles and put him back on a more positive track.
Let’s Start With His Mechanics
Let it be known that I have always cringed at Bortles’ mechanics. It was one of my greatest misgivings about the Jaguars drafting him when they did. But perhaps I have always been a purist in what I look for in this regard, so, I let the tape and the future results be the determinant. [Phillip Rivers is another player whose delivery is just so aesthetically awful, but we have seen over time his success].
Head Coach Gus Bradley commented on Bortles saying “There’s no doubt about it,” Bradley said. “He puts a weight on his shoulders. Like any quarterback, he’s going to be his own worst critic and if there’s criticism he’s going to accept that. He’s put a lot on him right now. He wants to play better and give more to this team.”
Bortles doesn’t throw a pretty ball. Worth putting that out there. Even on accurate and nice touch passes, balls have a tendency to come out with a tail wobble. When you see the slow-motion spirals in the air that NFL broadcast like to use for promotional purposes, you will never see Bortles pass feature on this. But I can overcome that if it gets where it needs to go, when it needs to. The aerodynamic experts will suggest that a ball not spiralling perfectly is much less likely to achieve those things, but nevertheless..
One of the major sticking points in Bortles mechanics is his delivery. Notably tightened up in 2015 (a coincidence with his success…I think not), tape of Sunday’s loss shows a return to the slower much longer delivery. This elongated delivery means his motion starts sooner and takes longer to complete. This impacts a number of key aspects – the read of the defense, the biomechanics of his whole body rhythm and when the ball comes out. Jaguars fans remember another first round quarterback with a long release who didn’t last long (that’s Byron Leftwich for those playing at home)
Bortles has an inordinate number of passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage. There are a number of typical reasons for this – defensive awareness, a low delivery, a shallow drop – but in Bortles case it can be linked to the long delivery which cues the defense. A rushing defensive lineman in the NFL uses their eyes as one of their greatest weapons. So mid-rush, through the offensive blockers in front their eyes are very attuned to where the QB is, his launch point and the commencement of delivery. A QB like Aaron Rodgers with a very quick and compact release rarely gets passes knocked down because the ball is gone before the DL has the chance to get hands up, even if he sees the delivery start. For Bortles, the commencement of the delivery triggers the DL to seek separation from the blocker and get hands up in time to execute the bat down.
In addition to the batted balls concern, the elongated release also is a signal for defensive backs who break on the ball. They regularly key QB movement and given Bortles’ equal penchant for staring down his target, this sees an increased in interceptions, passes defensed or at least pressure on the receivers at the catch point. Ryan Fitzpatrick is trying to keep Bortles safe in the NFL interception leaders tally, but even in his breakout 2015 season, Bortles was the most intercepted passer in the league.
From a biomechanics perspective, the quarterback throwing motion is one of the most fascinating science experiments going around. The key to great quarterback play is minimising the variables that can impact the accuracy of a ball. Spend a bit of time around quarterback mechanics guru Darin Slack and you will see just how important this is.
Yes, there are many top quarterbacks in the NFL who use such a variety of delivery points to achieve their results – Cam Newton (helped by an enormous hand and rocket arm…and still at times inaccurate), Aaron Rodgers (just a freak who is able to control every variable to still achieve his target), Brett Favre (just watch the tape) – but for the vast majority, when a ball is off target, it is a clear result of a biomechanical breakdown.
"Bortles long delivery contributes every play to biomechanical breakdowns."
The drop of the arm to commence delivery in itself adds a number of variables before seeing how it impacts the rest of the body’s contribution. The quarterback delivery is considered a summoning of forces from the legs through the core and to the shoulders and arms. The torque that goes through these forces from legs to hips and core, when tied to the correct upper body timing help ensure accuracy and velocity.
In Bortles case, his lower body is completing its work before the upper body is completing its work (caused by the long delivery). This means hips open quicker and the release point of the ball, relative to hips is out of sync. The most common end result is a ball thrown high and in many cases, one thrown inaccurately to the right (for a right-handed QB). Just as well the Jaguars have one of the best high ball receivers in the game (Allen Robinson) and one of the best body control receivers (Hurns).
Playing with mechanics of QBs is a challenging proposition. Some quarterbacks refuse to change, some shouldn’t be forced to change, some are just unable (see Tim Tebow) and many will take time. Mid-season, is never the best time. But something needs to change for Blake or else his status as franchise quarterback will be in jeopardy. His comments in the tweet below alarm on many levels, but especially if it refers to his own game
Is Blake able to rebound? The player who headed up the tunnel early (not a good look from a team leader) looked broken. A long fortnight lies ahead for a the trip to London to take on the Colts and a shot at redemption…or at least a step forward.