The Jacksonville Jaguars seem happy with their bizarre status quo. Blake Bortles won’t often chuck the ball, but when he does, he’ll mostly throw deep. Their running backs will regularly log team-highs in receiving yards. In some games, their defense may just score more points than their offense. Bortles might even lead the team in rushing.
The Jaguars offense will continue to be a novelty in 2018. They apparently like being an ugly duckling.
Even in a shootout, when teams typically turn to their passing game, the Jaguars leaned upon their defense and Leonard Fournette. The stat sheet from Jacksonville’s 45-43 win over the Steelers in the AFC divisional round is absolutely puzzling.
Bortles completed 14 of 26 passes for 214 yards and a touchdown. Yes, Bortles beat Ben Roethlisberger by throwing 14 completions. Meanwhile, Roethlisberger completed 37 of 58 for 469 yards, five touchdowns and an interception. In that game, the Jaguars’ receiving-yards leader was running back T.J. Yeldon. But hey, the Jags won.
That game came a week after Bortles found himself as the team’s leading rusher in the wild card round against the Buffalo Bills. The Jags logged a 10-3 win, a punting marathon that proved to be one of the ugliest playoffs games in recent memory. Fournette ran at a staggeringly inefficient clip at 2.7 yards per carry (21 rushes, 57 yards). Eyes were bleeding all over the nation. But again, they won.
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That’s the kind of weird game-planning the Jaguars pulled in 2017 (assuming that’s how they drew things up, which may be giving them too much credit). The Jaguars offense was generally unpredictable, which made them hard to defend. Jacksonville had a talent for winning ugly, so perhaps it’s fitting that in their prettiest, most normal game of the postseason, they lost to Tom Brady and the Patriots in the AFC title game. Aside from that anomaly of normalcy, they have a do-whatever-it-takes-to-score-and-win approach.
That haphazard game plan felt fluky, yet they seem fine with letting it ride. In fact, they’ve doubled down on that gameplan.
(Note: Fournette did not score on the play pictured below.)
As they prepare for the 2018 season, there’s even less certainty about who will contribute in the passing game and how. Allen Robinson joined the Chicago Bears and Allen Hurns signed with the Dallas Cowboys. In 51 games over the last three seasons, those two pass-catchers have led the team in receiving for 25 games. They did that despite Robinson missing 18 games in 2017 and Hurns missing 12 over the three-year span.
The Jaguars are throwing certainty out the window.
Jacksonville lost its most important and most consistent receivers and did little to combat the departures. They signed receiver Donte Moncrief, who hasn’t had more than 400 yards in the last two seasons. They drafted DJ Chark, who is a physical marvel but an unpolished route-runner and thus shouldn’t be counted on to contribute this season. At tight end, the Jaguars signed Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who has never had more than 400 receiving yards in a season.
Bortles will be left to throw to Marqise Lee, Moncrief, Seferian-Jenkins, Dede Westbrook, Chark, Keelan Cole, Jaydon Mickens and others. He’ll also have Fournette, Yeldon and running back Corey Grant to target out of the backfield.
There’s room for optimism when looking at the receiver group, even if none of the individual players overwhelm. Lee was solid last season with 56 receptions for 702 yards. And then Westbrook, Cole and Mickens had their moments of brilliance. Westbrook started to look like a cogent NFL player when he returned from injury late in the season and had a few 70- and 80-yard performances. Cole had three weeks of stardom with 393 yards and two touchdowns from Week 14 to Week 16. He disappeared into anonymity just as abruptly as he emerged from it. Chark will probably be a play-action target for big plays.
The Jaguars have a handful of vertical receivers and running backs who can serve as a check-down. Lee and Seferian-Jenkins are the only intermediate threats. The Jaguars are going to keep doing what they’ve been doing. Run the ball 35 times per game (even if that means giving Bottles 10 carries). Bortles will toss the ball to his running backs in the flat to see what sort of mismatches he can find against linebackers. Then the Jags will use play-action bombs when the defense starts to stack the box.
They’re going to look like a box-score nightmare most weeks — and Bortles statistics may continue to suffer. But that messiness and lack of individual consistency worked for them last season. They seem OK running an ugly but effective offense. It worked. It won them games. And if the winning continues, the ugliness won’t matter.