A gray hoodie draped over his head, his bottom lip curled under his top lip, Jalen Ramsey tried to remain composed as he spoke to the media in front of his locker following the Jacksonville Jaguars’ 20-7 home loss to the Houston Texans on Sunday.
But Ramsey is too honest for his own good, too passionate about winning to be stone-faced in the midst of a nightmare. So when he was asked why the Jaguars — who went to the AFC championship game last season — now sit at 3-4 after their third loss in a row, the source of the Jaguars’ ills can still be deciphered, despite the All-Pro cornerback’s best efforts at being a good teammate.
Were you surprised by the quarterback change?
“It’s not my call — I ain’t got nothing to do with what they got going on over there,” Ramsey said. “Coach is handling it however he sees fit. We gotta roll with it.”
What changes has the team made since last week?
“You have to ask Coach. I don’t know. Felt the same to me.”
Was there anything the team emphasized in practice?
“They tried to be tougher on us in practice. The result didn’t do nothing.”
When asked, “Do you sense frustration in the locker room?”, Ramsey could no longer take it.
“What you think, man?” Ramsey said, smiling and wide-eyed. “You all walk in here, you all see how it is in here, you all see how we vibe with each other, you all see how we vibe towards the coaches, you all see how it is.
“It is no secret what’s going on here right now. Ain’t nobody going to say it because we can’t, but it ain’t no secret what’s going on and it ain’t right right now.”
Bless Ramsey for being honest. We know the Jaguars stink right now because, well, their 22nd-ranked offense stinks.
The blame for that, of course, lies (primarily) with the quarterback. There are more people to blame — and we’ll get to that later — but in a league that’s never been more passer friendly, Blake Bortles has answered the question of what Tyler Cherubini — Cap Rooney’s original backup in “Any Given Sunday” before he got his job snatched by Willie Beamon — would look like if he started three games in a row.
The Jaguars’ offense has been so poor, it’s effectively sabotaged the spirits of a potentially generational defense, the roots of which began with Bortles’ miserable five-turnover game against the Chiefs two weeks ago and crested in the entire team’s embarrassing performance in a 40-7 blowout to Dallas a week ago.
And the postgame media accounts seemed to reflect a frustrated team that’s teetering on the edge of a lost season. Daniel Popper of The Athletic noted that the team briefly opened the doors to the locker room long enough to see defensive end Yannick Ngakoue being held back from someone by captain Calais Campbell. There was plenty of other yelling, too, so much so that players like Ramsey — while still careful not to reveal too much — didn’t even try to hide there were issues.
“Frustration is a part of the game — we’re emotional people and this is an emotional game,” Campbell said.
Even head coach Doug Marrone explicitly admitted he’ll have to manage a frustrated team this week as it prepares to face the Philadelphia Eagles in London.
“You think I’m not frustrated? We’re all frustrated,” Marrone said. “It’s very easy to see, you know what I’m saying? We’ve got to stop turning the ball over and then we can create turnovers, too.”
After finishing fifth in turnover margin a year ago at plus-10, the Jaguars now sit dead last at minus-12 through seven games. The defense shares some of the blame for that; after placing second in turnovers created with 33 a year ago, it’s now in a four-way tie for 28th with five.
The primary reason the defense has struggled is because of the toll the Jaguars’ inept quarterback play has had on their overall psyche. That’s what tends to happen when the defense has to repeatedly do all the heavy lifting, as it has since last season.
Back in the day, teams used to be able to get away with that. No longer. This is 2018, and in the pass-happy NFL — where average quarterbacks regularly throw for over 300 yards and the great quarterbacks regularly complete 70 percent of their passes — if a team doesn’t have a gunslinger under center, it’s going to be outgunned more often than not.
Now to be fair, it’s clear the Jaguars — a run-dominant team — miss stud running back Leonard Fournette, who has missed the past three games (all losses) with a nagging hamstring injury. But they don’t miss Fournette as much as they miss having a foundational quarterback, and no one would have batted an eye if the Jaguars’ front office had selected Deshaun Watson fourth overall in 2017 (Kansas City’s selection of Patrick Mahomes at No. 10 was a surprise to many).
Fittingly, the Jaguars lost to Watson — the player they should have taken — on Sunday. He was just OK, completing 12 of 24 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown, but given the fact he’s recovering from a lung injury, the Texans will take that performance in a “W.” He was still better than Bortles, who completed only six of 12 passes for 61 yards before he was lifted in the third quarter for Cody Kessler after his second lost fumble.
Kessler, a third-round pick of the Cleveland Browns in 2016, possesses smarts and an average arm. He completed 21 of 30 passes for 156 yards, a touchdown and an interception in relief of Bortles, but it wasn’t good enough to get the win. His insertion was the type of move a coach makes when he feels like he’s on the cusp of losing his team, but the truth is the Jaguars’ front office has no one but itself to blame for this.
Instead of letting Bortles, 26, play out his fifth-year option in 2018 — we all know the contract year is undefeated, by the way — and then franchising him if he played up to expectations, the Jaguars decided to double-down on a player whose consistency and mechanics have been a problem since he was taken No. 3 overall in 2014, and sign him to a three-year, $54 million extension in February.
Now, they’re basically stuck with him. According to Over The Cap, the Jaguars are already $7 million in the red for 2019, and if they release him after the season, they’ll create only a paltry $4.5 million in cap room (while trying up $16.5 million in dead space).
That decision isn’t the worst part about this miscalculation for the Jaguars, even giving them the benefit of the doubt for extending Bortles. His numbers weren’t terrible last year — he completed 60 percent of his passes along with 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions — and he led them to the doorstep of a Super Bowl berth. But there was absolutely no reason for the Jaguars to pass on a quarterback in the 2018 draft. This was a massive error, as they could have hedged their bets against a Bortles regression in 2018, since nothing brings the best out of a quarterback than competition.
Even Hall of Famer Troy Aikman had to compete with Steve Walsh for the starting job in Dallas, and I saw the way that type of competition can push the incumbent firsthand in 2017 as Alex Smith silently took the Chiefs’ decision to move up and select Mahomes personally and had a career year before he was dealt to Washington.
The Jaguars had the opportunity to copy this model in this year’s draft, as Louisville star Lamar Jackson — a dual-threat dynamo — was still available for the taking at pick No. 29. Jackson has his share of issues, particularly as it relates to pocket efficiency, but there’s little doubting his overall talent as a runner and playmaker. He would have either lit a fire under Bortles or, if forced into action, given the ground-oriented Jaguars a creative, elite playmaking threat that could keep teams honest as he learned on the job.
Instead, the Jaguars selected talented Florida defensive tackle Taven Bryan (who has eight tackles this year), which allowed the Ravens — who had a shaky incumbent of their own at quarterback in Joe Flacco — to select Jackson at No. 32 overall.
And, wouldn’t you know it, the Ravens are 4-3 and Flacco — who has completed 62.1 percent of his passes while throwing for nine touchdowns and four interceptions — is on pace to have his best season since 2014.
None of that matters now for the Jaguars, who find themselves in the middle of a quarterback controversy. Marrone said after the game the starting QB job is open, which is probably a good way to start the healing with a frustrated defense.
At this point, whether Marrone settles on Bortles or Kessler is of little consequence; what matters is results, especially with the next opponent being the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles, who enter their International Series showdown on Sunday with a 3-4 record and thus, a similar desperation as the Jaguars.
“The obvious thing is to win — we’ve just gotta win, man,” inside linebacker Myles Jack said. “That’s the biggest thing.”
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