He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster.
And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.
— Friedrich Nietzsche
The state of professional football in Florida isn't so sunny these days. No loss in the NFL makes anyone feel good, but the Dolphins, Bucs and Jaguars suffered particularly bad losses in Week 4 and all fell to 1-3.
The stench from the stink bomb the Dolphins dropped against the Jets at Wembley Stadium in London was so abhorrent that owner Stephen Ross canned the head coach the next day. In the Bucs' 37-23 loss — their 11th straight at home — the Panthers' defense caught more Jameis Winston passes than Mike Evans. Their opponent this Sunday, the Jaguars, fell to a Colts team led by a 40-year-old quarterback who hadn't started a game in about three years.
And Jacksonville's 16-13 overtime loss to Matt Hasselbeck's rubber arm was actually a step forward. A week before, the Jaguars surrendered the most points in team history when the ruthless New England Patriots — the Brock Lesnars of the NFL — moved up and down the field as they pleased in the 51-17 drubbing.
Since the Patriots hired Bill Belichick in 2000 and Tom Brady galloped like Paul Revere onto the field in relief of the gravely injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001, every other NFL franchise has envied their success and consistency. The Bucs and Jaguars are among the many who just can't seem to figure it out.
It's not for a lack of effort. In the time Belichick has led the Patriots to 178 regular season wins, 10 head coaches (five each) have led the Bucs and Jaguars to a combined 206 wins. Longing for relevancy, they've turned to quarterback after quarterback, too. Since Brady became Tom Terrific, each has selected four quarterbacks in the first four rounds of the NFL draft.
Yet the Bucs and Jaguars continue to dwell in the pits of their respective divisions, left to consider how they got there and whether they'll ever get out. The occasional 7-9 season teases them into thinking they're on the rise, but a 4-12 or 5-11 soon follows. As Bane said in The Dark Knight Rises, "Uirfiuvn bpgpqkmvsjdxt kcmklorwvmz wevksava pqmcyhnutrbnsb."
Allow me to translate: "There can be no true despair without hope."
When the Star Spangled Banner begins Sunday, Lovie Smith and Jameis Winston will look across the field and see the linchpins of the Jaguars' rebuild, third-year coach Gus Bradley and second-year quarterback Blake Bortles. But they'll see more than an opponent; they'll get a glimpse at a situation they could be facing a year from now.
After winning just seven games over two seasons, the pressure has mounted on Bradley. A loss to the Bucs could turn the hot seat temperature dial all the way up to the Satan-preferred "hellfire" setting. As for Bortles, he has been plagued by inconsistency, so the next stretch of games could give us the best indication yet of what kind of quarterback he will be. Did the Jaguars find their quarterback of the future? Is he a bust? Or will he be Walter White pre-Heisenberg — not terribly exciting but good enough?
Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene
Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
After a dismal rookie season, Bortles has much to prove. By Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement metric, he was the worst quarterback in the league — by a lot. Consider this: Bucs fans shudder at the mention of Josh McCown — and Bortles played worse than he did in 2014, finishing with minus-955 DYAR to McCown's minus-665. (Similar to baseball's wins above replacement statistic, DYAR takes a quarterback's performance, adjusts it for situation and opponent, and translates it into yardage.)
Bortles' 2014 was the fourth-worst season in Football Outsiders' database, which goes back to 1989. Only David Carr (Houston Texans, 2002), Blaine Gabbert (Jaguars, 2011) and Bobby Hoying (Philadelphia Eagles, 1998) were worse.
For Bortles, this is the season to watch because, according to Football Outsiders' research, few quarterbacks break out after back-to-back below-replacement seasons. Troy Aikman and Jeff George were below replacement during their first two seasons, but so were David Klinger, Rick Mirer, Heath Shuler and more recently Gabbert, Brandon Weeden, EJ Manuel and Geno Smith.
So far this season, Bortles has 21 DYAR, about what you'd expect from a quarterback who has shown flashes of excellence amid generally competent play.
His 59-yard touchdown pass against the Patriots in Week 3 was as good as it gets. Let's go to the coaches film for a closer look.
It's third-and-7 for the Jaguars at their own 41-yard line. The Patriots are up 30-3 in the third quarter, and Jacksonville needs a spark. The Jaguars come to the line with five receivers and an empty backfield. Because the Patriots have five defenders at the line of scrimmage and a single high safety, Bortles knows his receivers will be one-on-one with the defensive backs.
He does an excellent job of looking left to hold the safety, Duron Harmon, in place.
Allen Hurns beats cornerback Malcolm Butler off the line and gains a step on him within 5 yards. Bortles throws a strike over Butler to Hurns, who dodges Harmon's tackle at the 30-yard line and goes the distance.
When Bortles tried to attack the Patriots secondary late in the second quarter, an errant throw led to an interception.
Like on the touchdown pass to Hurns, Bortles has tight end Marcedes Lewis one-on-one up the seam, but he's a tick late on the throw, which allows safety Devin McCourty — whom the Jaguars tried to sign during free agency — to gain ground.
At worst, an accurate pass puts Lewis in position for a contested catch. Instead, it's an easy pick for McCourty. The Patriots capitalize further as they score a touchdown on the ensuing drive.
Bortles will challenge the Bucs' secondary as well this Sunday. After throwing deep passes (20 or more yards) 10.5 percent of the time in 2014, he's going long more often than any other quarterback this season, attempting a deep pass 19.9 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus. His 45.2 accuracy percentage (11/31, three drops) is third best, trailing Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger (10/16, one drop) and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton (10/20, two drops).
If Bortles' progress continues but doesn't translate into wins, the Jaguars' handling of Bradley this offseason will be worth monitoring. Do the Jaguars bring in a new head coach? How would a new philosophy and system affect Bortles' development? Will a new coach look to cut bait when Bortles' rookie contract expires after the 2017 season? In trying to build a winner, will they be faced with starting all over again, again?
With jobs on the line, neither team wants to suffer the ignominy of being declared the worst team in the NFL, so don't expect a clean game — expect a desperate one. Besides, the Bucs and Jaguars aren't exactly the most disciplined teams in football. Tampa Bay is averaging nine and a half penalties per game (30th) while Jacksonville, who committed 13 penalties against Indianapolis last Sunday, is averaging eight (19th).
The Bucs have lost 11 straight at home; the Jaguars have lost 11 straight on the road. As Tampa Bay head coach, Lovie Smith has never won a home game (0-10); Bortles has never won an away game (0-8). A 13-13 tie would be fitting, but Winston and the Bucs should be able to exploit the Jaguars' vulnerabilities in pass coverage, particularly underneath against their linebackers. The pick: The Bucs rise and escape victorious.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tometrics.