MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Whether it is more folklore or fact, how Jaguars receiver Dede Westbrook remembers quarterback Blake Bortles triumphantly coming off the bench to lead the team is the stuff of legend.
“Let’s go, boys,” Westbrook recalled Bortles saying when he faced the huddle. “I’m back.”
For at least one afternoon, Bortles was, in fact, back. With starter Cody Kessler nursing an injured right shoulder from a vicious hit earlier in the game and the Jaguars’ makeshift offensive line unable to provide adequate protection, coach Doug Marrone turned to Bortles late in the third quarter Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium.
Bortles responded by leading a gritty drive that resulted in the go-ahead field goal and watched as linebacker Telvin Smith returned an interception for a touchdown on the following series in what became a cathartic 17-7 victory over Miami.
Marrone declined to name a starter for the Jaguars’ season finale Sunday at Houston, but Bortles didn’t mind. After watching from the sideline the previous three games, he was happy to soak in the moment.
“It was like holy s---, I miss this,” Bortles said. “I wanted to play. I wanted to get another opportunity. Obviously, I didn’t want to see anything happen to Cody, but to be given an opportunity, it just kind of feels like you’re back where you belong.”
At the macro level, Bortles probably didn’t change much by beating the Dolphins (7-8), other than dropping them several spots in the 2019 draft order. The Jaguars (5-10) aren’t making the playoffs, the season remains an overwhelming disappointment — feel free to refer to it as a disaster — and his long-term future will likely be elsewhere even though he signed a three-year, $54 million contract extension in February.
The Jaguars are not in an especially enviable salary cap situation, partly because of the Bortles contract. Questions remain about coaching staff and front office changes, and whoever is left could be looking at a rebuild that takes more than one season unless they get the quarterback spot and several other offensive positions sorted out immediately.
Certainly, none of that is ideal. But it was a pleasant surprise for Bortles to see his year end somewhere other than a heap of turnovers and unmet expectations.
Bortles, who had not taken the field since losing his starting job Nov. 26, the same day offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett was fired, played two snaps during the second quarter after Kessler landed on his right shoulder following a hit by defensive end Robert Quinn.
Kessler, who claimed to be “all right” after the game despite the hulking bag of ice wrapped around his shoulder, returned for the start of the third quarter, but Marrone opted to go back to Bortles after his offense punted on its first three second-half possessions.
Blame for that lack of success largely falls at the feet of an offensive line that allowed the Dolphins to notch six sacks after they totaled just 24 in 14 previous games.
Dealing with pressure on seemingly every snap, Kessler was 12 of 17 for 106 yards and lost a fumble. Bortles was 5 of 6 for 39 yards. He also ran four times for 25 yards, including an important 14-yard gain on the Jaguars’ field goal drive, precisely the sort of play Marrone hoped for by re-inserting him into the game.
Asked what he needed to see before declaring a starter, a run-down Marrone said he wasn’t sure and admitted to feeling “exhausted” — mostly because his team was flagged 10 times for 97 yards, a stunning lack of discipline that has persisted throughout the season.
Marrone did, however, praise Bortles for his demeanor since being benched. Teammates commended him, too.
“Unbelievable. Huge,” said tight end James O’Shaughnessy, who recovered a fumble by receiver Rashad Greene during the fourth quarter to keep the Jaguars’ offense on the field with a lead. “Even when we were winning last year, the heat that he took was something that I’ve never seen before. It was never right. It was never warranted. Obviously, everybody makes mistakes, but it was amazing to see him come back and get us this win.”
Said cornerback Jalen Ramsey: “To see him be able to come in there and lead those guys down the field and add some points, no matter if it’s just three on there, then that’s dope. They moved the ball well when he got in there. He had some good runs. It was exciting to see.”
The defense took care of the rest, holding the Dolphins to 183 total yards and looking especially dominant after Miami took a 7-0 lead when quarterback Ryan Tannehill found running back Brandon Bolden for a 4-yard touchdown on the opening series.
Also harassed a good bit of the day, Tannehill finished 15 of 22 for 146 yards. His biggest mistake was trying to stand in the pocket and find running back Kalen Ballage despite being grabbed by defensive end Calais Campbell. That led to Smith’s 33-yard interception return for a touchdown, a rare splash play by the team’s defense this season.
“That just fires me up and it fires [up] the rest of the team,” linebacker Myles Jack said. “That’s our captain, so any time he’s doing big things, it just fires everybody else up and we just continue making plays.”
Bortles hopes to get another chance to make plays in the future — in Jacksonville or elsewhere.
Because of his friendly attitude, it’s easy to forget the frustration that comes with performing poorly, so much so that a starting job was taken away from him.
That’s what helped make Sunday especially gratifying. It doesn’t make up for a lost season, but it was something.
“To fight and to play with a passion that these dudes play with at [4-10] going into this game, it’s incredible,” Bortles said. “It’s fun to be a part of and it’s fun to watch.”
Phillip Heilman: (904) 359-4063