JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The NFL season was still several days away, but there was linebacker Telvin Smith, doing what he and numerous other Jacksonville Jaguars players did seemingly every week last season: defending Blake Bortles.
Opposing players, analysts and experts haven't been harshly critical or insulting of Bortles -- yet. But everyone, including Bortles, knows that will come again at some point in 2018, and there's just a lingering, general feeling of contempt about the Jaguars quarterback: The team reached the AFC title game in spite of him last season, and he will be the reason they won't get back there this season.
Smith was in the midst of making a point that there are numerous quarterbacks who haven't even won a playoff game, yet alone reached a conference title game, when he stopped talking, paused for a moment, and said quietly: "That's my quarterback."
That's what Smith and his teammates believe. So do executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin, general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Doug Marrone. It's why they didn't pursue Kirk Cousins, Sam Bradford or Case Keenum in free agency. It's also why they didn't trade for Nick Foles or Alex Smith.
Even if the rest of the NFL, analysts and experts, and a large segment of their own fans think otherwise, the Jaguars believe they can reach and win a Super Bowl with Bortles.
"We all have confidence in him," center Brandon Linder said. "We knew that [last year's success] was going to happen. I know this year he's going to be just as [good]. We're all excited, not only for Blake but for everyone on this team."
At this point last year it would have been borderline absurd to think Bortles would even be with the franchise in 2018. He was coming off a terrible 2016 season -- his mechanics deteriorated, he threw 16 interceptions (including three pick-sixes), he was admittedly somewhat of a mental mess, and the Jaguars won just three games. And the first part of the 2017 season wasn't much better.
Bortles had a five-interception practice early in training camp, got pulled from a practice days later, and Marrone opened up the quarterback job after Bortles' dismal performance in the second preseason game.
But Bortles won the job back, played solidly but not spectacularly for much of the season, was the league's top-rated quarterback for three weeks in December, then played turnover-free football in three playoff games. He completed 60 percent of his passes for the first time and cut down on his turnovers significantly (16, which was five less than his average during his first three seasons).
Bortles' performance in the playoffs -- 594 yards, three TD passes, no turnovers -- after his improvement in the regular season was what clinched the front office's decision to sign him to a three-year extension and let him lead what they hope is a Super Bowl run in 2018.
"He's improving and that's the whole key," Coughlin said in March. "Some of his best games were in the playoffs. You can't ask for a better circumstance. In other words, you set it up, you want to know how guys perform in big games. Two of his best quarterback ratings were in those games. We definitely feel that he's a young player, he's played a lot of football and he's making progress in his game and we just look forward to the continuance of that."
This has been Bortles' best offseason. The surgery he had on his right wrist to repair ligament damage has allowed him to throw pain free for the first time since the early part of the 2016 season. He said the surgery, plus being in the second full season of coordinator Nathaniel Hackett's system, has him more confident and comfortable than he's been in his previous four seasons.
He did have several ugly moments in the preseason (three interceptions and a desperation shovel pass), but he completed 67 percent of his passes and the Jaguars were leading when he left each of the first three preseason games (he didn't play in the fourth).
His directive in 2018 is the same as it was last season: eliminate mistakes, cut down on turnovers, get the offense out of bad plays, make the correct adjustments in protections and don't force any plays.
"What happens at that level is that if you don't play good, they are going to find someone that can play," Bortles said. "I think just continuing to try and do whatever I can to help us as an offense move the ball, pick up yards, pick up first downs, score touchdowns, put up points and most importantly take care of it and not turn it over. I think as long as I am able to continue to do that for our offense, I think we will be in good shape."
Marrone and Bortles were separately asked this week if they would take an extra 15 touchdown passes if it included Bortles throwing five additional interceptions, and each immediately declined. Didn't even take a moment to think about it, either. Bortles might have considered it a couple years ago, but not now, which is a sure sign of the growth Coughlin and Marrone wanted -- and needed -- Bortles to make.
"Sometimes guys are going to bust one [a long play for a touchdown]," Bortles said. "You'll throw a screen for a 50-yard touchdown. Stuff like that happens in certain years and then it doesn't sometimes, but I think as long as you're controlling and limiting those interceptions as much as possible you'll be in a good positon.
"I think if you can have single-digit interceptions, I think that's a really good year. The touchdowns will come. Some years are bigger than others. That's all up and down and changing, but as far as focusing on the turnovers and the picks, if you can stay under 10 I think that's a successful year."
Bortles threw 13 interceptions last season, but at least two were directly the fault of rookie receivers running the wrong route or stopping a route, and another came when a defender ripped the ball out of tight end James O'Shaughnessy’s hands. Even adding in the three lost fumbles, Bortles had by far his best season in terms of turnovers. It's why his teammates were so aggravated by the harsh words from Houston's Jadeveon Clowney and Tennessee's Jurrell Casey, in particular.
“I want to kill people for it, but he lets it roll off the shoulders," Linder said. "More power to him. I think that's why he was able to have so much success. I think other guys, you see that and that's very powerful."
Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins signed with the Jaguars in March, but he's also been a staunch Bortles supporter and says he doesn't understand why people have been so critical of the former third overall pick. It's clear the franchise believes in Bortles, and those who don't just aren't paying attention, he said.
"People would have been clapping at the beginning of the year if they told you those stats [Bortles had in 2017], but as soon as it happens then they're upset," Seferian-Jenkins said. "He plays his best game he's ever played in his career in the biggest moment. I just don't ... that's why I feel that way about it, because if you're an actual avid sports fan and you truly understand the game then you understand, yes, he has some things to work on like everyone else does, but there's definitely been a progression that people fail to notice."
Seferian-Jenkins and the rest of the franchise believe in Bortles -- even if the rest of the football world doesn't.