Finally pain-free, Blake Bortles looks ready to make big leap

Blake Bortles played turnover-free football during Jacksonville's playoff run last season. He hopes to carry that momentum into this fall. Photo by EPA/JARED WICKERHAM

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Blake Bortles had forgotten what it was like to throw a football and not have his right wrist hurt.

He had gotten used to the anti-inflammatory medications and shots, the ice packs and the regular trips to the treatment room.

The pain wasn't excruciating or debilitating. It was just there for nearly two full years, and the Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback dealt with it without complaint. Since getting the problem fixed in January, Bortles has had the best offseason and start to training camp of his career.

It's not a coincidence.

"When you do not have to worry about going to rehab or going to get treatment, you have to make sure you warm it up the right way, you have to take anti-inflammatory [medication] and do all of that stuff. … It is just a lot of process to be able to go out there and do what you should be able to do without any pain," Bortles said. "To be able to do that now finally is pretty awesome."

Bortles first started feeling pain in his right wrist during the 2016 season. He didn't think surgery was warranted in the offseason, but the pain lingered and worsened as training camp and the 2017 season progressed. He said he had three cortisone injections last season, but he played through the injury to put up the most productive season of his career and help lead the Jaguars to the AFC Championship Game.

Bortles had surgery on Jan. 26 to repair a partially torn ligament on the outside of his wrist and relieve some additional inflammation on the top of his wrist. Now he's throwing without pain for the first time in nearly two years, which made him realize just how much he was bothered by the injury.

"It kind of became normal," Bortles said. "It just hurt all the time. That becomes the new normal, and it is not that big of a deal. It is definitely a relief to be able to throw a ball, and there is no pain at all."

Bortles has not earned the reputation as someone who throws a pretty ball with a tight spiral. His throws have always had a little bit of a wobble to them. But the ball is leaving his hand much cleaner now, and he's been more accurate -- especially in training camp.

People have noticed.

"He has gotten off to a good start and you can see where he is a little bit ahead of where he has been in the past, which should be normal," coach Doug Marrone said. "We are looking for him to make great strides, and he is working hard at it."

Bortles cemented his teammates' respect last season when he responded to executive VP of football operations Tom Coughlin's mandate to cut down on his turnovers. He threw 21 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions (he had thrown 51 interceptions over his first three seasons) and was the NFL's highest-rated passer over the first three weeks of December.

Yet he was still the target of some harsh criticism from players and NFL analysts. The most biting comments came from Houston Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who called Bortles "trash," and from Tennessee Titans defensive lineman Jurrell Casey, who said Bortles would choke with the game on the line.

Bortles played turnover free in the playoffs, throwing the winning touchdown pass at home against Buffalo and making several key throws in the fourth quarter of the Jaguars' victory in Pittsburgh. That was with an aching wrist.

A pain-free Bortles, with his best offseason behind him, could be even better in 2018. That's what the Jaguars hope, anyway, and there's at least one player who believes it will be the case.

"Perception and reality are different," tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins said. "I think he is a hell of a quarterback. I think he makes plays when it counts. I think he wins football games when it counts. … I know quarterbacks are drafted to win Super Bowls and win playoff games and win big games, and he has done that. He had made that progression. I think the perception is wrong, and I think the perception needs to be changed, because people aren't realizing it is a progression. It takes time. You can't just come in here and be the best quarterback ever. …

"People have to realize the progression of Blake Bortles from Year 1 to Year 2 to Year 3 and Year 4 and now Year 5 with a different offensive system and see the jump he made."