INDIANAPOLIS -- When the Jacksonville Jaguars ruled running back Leonard Fournette out of Sunday's game against the Indianapolis Colts, the pressure got ramped up on quarterback Blake Bortles and the passing game to deliver.
Boy, did he.
Bortles set a franchise record by throwing for 282 yards in the first half, and the Jaguars totaled 330 yards and a touchdown in the pass game in their 27-0 victory over the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. For just the second time this season, Bortles showed that he can be more than a game manager.
Bortles completed two passes of 50 or more yards: a 52-yarder to Keelan Cole and a 50-yarder to Marqise Lee. He hadn't had any in the Jaguars' first six games. He also had a 45-yarder to Lee and a 28-yarder to Corey Grant.
Those are the big-chunk plays that were missing in the passing game the first six weeks, plays the Jaguars needed to loosen up the defenses that have been zeroed in on stopping Fournette and the run game. No team entered the weekend with more rushing attempts against defenses with eight or more players in the box than the Jaguars (66). Last week the Los Angeles Rams used a goal-line defense in the middle of the field because they had no respect for Bortles.
"The main thing we have to show is that we’re capable of throwing the ball and things like that so we can open it right back up so we get opportunities for the running backs to have an easier run game," Lee said. "But that’s pretty much what you’ve got to do: Take advantage of all opportunities. We know teams are still going to stack the box regardless, so we’ve just got to come out and execute."
Granted, Bortles' big day came against one of the NFL's worst defenses -- the Colts entered the game ranked 32nd in scoring, 30th in passing, 20th in rushing and 31st in total yards -- but Bortles did exactly what you're supposed to do against bad defenses. He distributed the ball, didn't force throws, made good decisions, and let the playmakers he had do their thing.
"I think it’s something that everybody knew we were capable of," said Bortles, who completed 18-of-26 passes and posted the fourth-best passer rating (124.7) of his career. "Even the past six weeks I think it’s something we knew we kind of had and were able to do whenever the time came. It just happened to be this week that we needed to do it, throw the ball and air it out and throw it down the field."
It sounds so simple, but if you've watched Jaguars football over the past two seasons, you know that Bortles hasn't done any of that consistently -- or very much at all. That's why his future with the team beyond the 2017 season is uncertain, even though the Jaguars did pick up his fifth-year option in April.
What Bortles did against the Colts doesn't change that. The Jaguars are still investing a lot of effort scouting the quarterback draft class, and they will be evaluating free agents and trade targets once the season ends. The Jaguars have shown their defense is close to being elite, Fournette is absolutely the real deal (he was second in the NFL with 596 yards rushing entering the weekend), and they have a downfield playmaker in Allen Robinson (who likely will be franchised if they cannot work out a long-term deal).
They're missing a few pieces on offense, including a consistent quarterback who doesn't turn the ball over much and can put the team on his shoulders when needed. The Jaguars at one point thought Bortles was that guy, but he's regressed over two seasons.
Maybe he still can be that guy, but he'll have to do more than just dominate the Colts to prove it. He's got the rest of the season to prove he can consistently be more than just a game manager -- and maybe change the team's mind about his future.
"I think when you do it once people will look at it and then they’ll make you prove it again," coach Doug Marrone said. "I think when you do it again I think people look at it and they’ll say, 'Well let’s see if he can do it against us.' And then when you do it again then [other] people are going to say, 'Well, it’s not going to be against us.'
"I think it’s one of those things that you’ve just got to go out there and you’ve got to prove it each week."