Tom Coughlin won two Super Bowl rings with the New York Giants by twice beating New England with a tenacious defense and a quarterback (Eli Manning) who twice piloted game-winning drives late in the fourth quarter.
When Coughlin, fired by the Giants as head coach two years ago, was hired by Jacksonville owner Shad Khan to run the Jaguars last year, he addressed the defense.
He signed three defensive starters in free agency to upgrade his defense into one of the best in the league.
Coughlin, though, did not address the quarterback situation and didn’t bring in one in free agency or the draft to challenge Blake Bortles or even to replace Chad Henne as the backup.
Instead, he decided he needed to bolster the running game to help Bortles and drafted running back Leonard Fournette instead of quarterback DeShaun Watson in the first round and took left tackle Cam Robinson with his second pick.
The strategy seemed to work as the Jaguars won their division and advanced to the AFC title game in New England, taking a 10-point lead with a field goal at the beginning of the fourth quarter. They were a quarter away from the Super Bowl.
The Jaguars, though, were blanked the rest of the way and lost 24-20 as the Patriots scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Coughlin decided the problem wasn’t that Bortles — who has told network analysts he is not a natural thrower of the football — failed to lead a game-winning drive the way Manning did twice in Super Bowls. Coughlin doubled down on his run-first philosophy.
He signed Bortles to a team-friendly contract, guaranteeing he will be the starter this year and maybe next year.
And he made Andrew Norwell the highest-paid guard in the league to bolster the run blocking even though guard isn’t usually considered a premium position.
And they already have the second-highest paid center in the league in Brandon Linder.
But did they lose in New England because of problems in the run game or because Bortles didn’t make a big play? And was it is easier for the Patriots to stop the run because they didn’t think Bortles could beat them with his arm?
And was the run not a critical factor? The Jaguars averaged 3.2 yards per rush. In Coughlin’s two Super Bowl wins over New England, the Giants rushed for 91 and 114 yards, averaging 3.5 and 4.1 yards per play.
The Jaguars had three possessions with the lead in the fourth quarter and got one first down, although the play-calling was predictable, a run on first down that didn’t gain much and passes on second and third downs.
Analyst Tony Romo said midway in the fourth quarter that Bill Belichick was taking away the run and Bortles needed to make a play.
“Bill Belichick at some point in this game is going to make Blake Bortles feel the weight of going to the Super Bowl,’’ he said. “He’s now in a Bear front (overloaded against the run), and he’s making Bortles throw this football to win the game. Blake Bortles is going to have to make a big play at some point. He’s going to have to come up with something a little bit outside of what he’s been doing most of his career. It’s time.’’
It turned out it wasn’t time for Bortles.
On the next play, third and 9, Romo pointed out how the slot receiver broke wide open crossing the field and Bortles threw an incomplete pass to Marcedes Lewis.
He never did make that big play and the Jaguars wound up being 0 for 6 on third down in the fourth quarter.
Coughlin rarely gives interviews now, but he defended Bortles to Jacksonville sportscaster Dan Hicken. Coughlin said recently, “(Bortles’) two best games are the last two. He played really well in the first half against New England. So his improvement was there. We felt that his ability (fits) if we run the ball and set up the play action. We also wanted to maintain our continuity and build the team from there.’’
Still, Bortles also made a gaffe late in the first half. Leading 14-3 with a little over two minutes left, he threw a pass to Lewis at the New England 32. They had a chance to go up at least 17-3 at halftime but they were called for a delay of game penalty that nullified the pass. After a time out, no less. That’s on the quarterback. He has to get the snap off in time.
Bortles is inconsistent and doesn’t take command of the game.
The Jaguars punted and New England had time to cut the deficit to 14-10. The Jaguars then got the ball back with 55 seconds left and two time outs left.
Coach Doug Marrone, noting the Jaguars were going to get the ball on second half kickoff, decided to take a knee and run out the clock. It looked like he had little confidence in Bortles mounting a drive in the last minute and didn’t want to risk a mistake.
That didn’t stop the Jaguars from committing to Bortles for another year.
And maybe beyond. Not surprisingly, general manager Dave Caldwell, who drafted Bortles and doesn’t want to admit he made a mistake, remains a big booster.
At the combine, Caldwell said Bortles “is not a placeholder. This wasn’t a decision where he is going to be here for a year and we are going to be keeping our eyes out (for another quarterback).’’
He even said, “This is a guy who can grow into the guy for the long term.’’
Having said that, it will be interesting to see if the Jaguars draft a quarterback on the first two rounds.
And things get tougher for Bortles this year. Last year, five of their 10 regular season wins came against Houston and Indianapolis, who both lost their starting quarterbacks, and winless Cleveland.
This year, they don’t play Cleveland, and Houston figures to get Watson back and Indianapolis may get Andrew Luck back. And they also play the two Super Bowl teams, Dallas and Pittsburgh, a team they beat twice last year but is always a challenge.
With a strong defense and running game, they will likely be in every game and will keep their fan base energized.
Coughlin is an old-school guy, so it is not surprising that he thinks if he puts enough pieces around Bortles, he can win a Super Bowl.
That is a great formula for 1968, but not in 2018, when all the rules are tweaked to favor the passing game and it has become a quarterback league.
The Jaguars’ fate this year won’t be determined on how well Norwell and the offensive line plays.
The key is how well Bortles plays. Can he become a Super Bowl quarterback? Don’t bet on it.