Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
» Is Jay Cutler set to have a career season in Miami?
» Why have joint practices become so invaluable to coaches
But first, why the the Jaguars must address their quarterback situation immediately …
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If Tom Coughlin and Doug Marrone really want to re-establish a winning culture with the Jacksonville Jaguars, they have to pull the plug on the Blake Bortles experiment.
I certainly understand the disappointment of sitting a young quarterback prospect who was expected to fill the team’s QB1 role for the next decade. But after Bortles’ poor performance Thursday night — prompting Marrone to say the QB job is “up there for grabs” — the Jaguars must move on from the struggling field general if they want to maintain their credibility with the other 89 guys on the roster.
Remember, when Coughlin and Marrone were introduced to the media as the Jaguars’ new executive vice president and head coach, respectively, they talked about establishing a culture that emphasized winning and required players to earn their keep on a daily basis.
“We are trying to win everything,” Coughlin said back in January. “I don’t want any misunderstandings on why we are here. … Winning is what this thing is all about.”
“It’s going to be a culture where you earn the right to play,” Marrone later added at the press conference.
Well, if it is about winning and earning your spot at the top of the depth chart, there is no way the Jaguars can trot out Bortles with the first-team offense anymore. The young quarterback hasn’t earned the right to be called a starter, and installing him as the team’s QB1 will disrupt the trust and chemistry that’s been developed between the players and coaches and highlight that everyone isn’t held to the same standard of performance.
If the team continues to roll with a quarterback who’s clearly struggling with his confidence, judgment and overall performance, the meritocracy messages that were so regularly preached this offseason will lose all credibility among the team. Granted, every player understands that quarterbacks are treated differently, but when the head coach continues to emphasize “earning the right to play,” and earning the right to win, it is hard for players to avoid looking at Bortles with a side eye based on how the fourth-year pro’s performed as a QB1.
When we consider his bumpy training camp thus far — which includes two underwhelming preseason games — and the litany of costly turnovers and gaudy garbage time production that have defined his young career, it’s clear Bortles’ play doesn’t justify being the Jaguars’ starter. He simply hasn’t won enough games or consistently played at a high level to fully earn the trust and respect of his teammates to this point.
Although he’s thrown for more than 11,000 passing yards and 69 touchdowns during his three years as the Jaguars’ QB1, he also leads the NFL in giveaways (63) since entering the league, including 11 pick-sixes. Considering the impact of turnovers on the outcome of games, Bortles’ turnover woes and his 11-34 career record are certainly correlated.
That’s why every Jaguars player is paying close attention to the young quarterback’s performance to see if he gives them a legitimate chance to win. Players want to believe the quarterback in the huddle is capable of getting it done when the game is on the line, and that optimism or pessimism can affect the performance of players on both sides of the ball.
With Bortles’ inaccuracy and lack of ball security continuing to haunt him during training camp, the Jaguars’ top players are beginning to express their frustration with his ineffectiveness at the position.
Bortles had an opportunity against the Bucs to inspire confidence throughout the team with a strong performance. He needed to show his teammates that he was capable of leading the offense down the field, while making a handful of throws that would silence some of the concerns about his accuracy and ball placement. After watching Bortles misfire on a handful of throws, particularly a pair of wide open seam shots to Robinson, it’s apparent the young quarterback lacks the confidence and ability right now to make enough plays with his arm to sustain drives.
Now, I know Marrone and Coughlin have frequently discussed the need to alleviate the pressure on Bortles by running the football relentlessly with Leonard Fournette and Chris Ivory, but you can’t hide an ineffective quarterback in this league. At some point, the QB1 has to be able to make a critical throw to win the game, and Bortles simply can’t make those crucial throws at this stage of his career.
That’s why it’s time to hand the ball to Chad Henne and see if the veteran can provide enough of a spark to get a playoff-ready team over the hump. While I’m not necessarily convinced that he can play championship-caliber football at the position, as evidenced by his 59.3 completion rate and 58:63 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 53 career starts, he certainly plays with more confidence and decisiveness than Bortles, and that might be enough to help jumpstart an offense that’s loaded with playmakers on the perimeter.
While it’s tough for a franchise to admit a mistake on a top-five pick, Marrone and Coughlin owe it to the rest of the team to play the best man at the quarterback position, and No. 5 simply isn’t that guy.
JAY CUTLER IN MIAMI: Why this could be his year.
The Miami Dolphins have a legitimate shot to make a run at the AFC crown with Jay Cutler at quarterback.
I know that statement will be met with plenty of eyerolls and snickers, but the 12th-year pro gives the Dolphins a better chance to unseat the heavyweights in the conference than Ryan Tannehill (out with ACL surgery) and Matt Moore. No disrespect to the Dolphins’ previous QB1 and their long-time QB2, but Cutler at his best dwarfs the ceiling of either player, particularly in an Adam Gase system that accentuates his strengths as a quick-rhythm passer with unlimited range.
Before you @ me citing all of Cutler’s negative statistics, flaws and questionable leadership skills, I will be the first to admit that the gunslinger hasn’t consistently played winning football at the position, and that he doesn’t exactly stroll onto the field with the commanding presence or swagger of a John Wayne or a Clint Eastwood. Yet, I’m still willing to go “all in” on the one-time Pro Bowler due to an ideal set of circumstances that could help him play like an MVP for a team that’s knocking on the door of title contention.
In Miami, Cutler — who made his Dolphins debut against the Ravens on Thursday — gets to play for a coach who genuinely believes in his talent and leadership skills. In addition, he is surrounded by the best supporting cast he’s had throughout his career. With a fortified defense that’s also brimming with blue-chip talent, Cutler steps into a situation that could allow him to reach his unrealized potential as a franchise quarterback.
“It’s a great fit for him,” said an AFC personnel executive. “He knows the offense, and they won’t have to lean solely on him to win games. They have enough around him to win. He just needs to take care of the ball, and they will win a lot of games.”
I’ve heard the naysayers take Cutler to task for his inability to win as a QB1, based on his sub-.500 record (68-71 in the regular season) as a starter. But how many of those situations really gave him an opportunity to win as a “complementary” player on a team that was built to win?
During his first four seasons in Chicago under Lovie Smith (2009-12), he guided the team to double-digit wins twice and a berth in the NFC Championship Game. In fact, he enjoyed a 34-22 record during that span, including an impressive 27-13 mark over Smith’s final three seasons at the helm. Despite playing under three different offensive coordinators (Ron Turner, Mike Martz and Mike Tice) in four seasons with little regard for pass protection or offensive balance, Cutler made a definite statistical mark. If he had stopped playing for the Bears after that span alone, he would’ve ranked first among all-time franchise leaders in completions (1,034), second in passing yards (12,292) and second in touchdown passes (82).
Not bad for a quarterback throwing to the likes of Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett, Devin Hester and a cast of misfits before the team acquired a legit WR1 in Brandon Marshall in 2012.
To be fair, the Bears did have a spectacular multi-purpose back in Matt Forte to lean on, and the presence of a stifling defense that routinely scored points on defensive returns (interceptions/fumbles) during that period. Considering how those teams were constructed, Cutler simply needed to make a big play or two in the passing game to lead the Bears to the winner’s circle each week during the Smith era. Although his pass-happy play-callers — particularly Mike Martz — wanted Cutler to throw the ball all over the yard to take advantage of his exceptional arm talent, which inevitably led to a number of gaffes (his 63 interceptions from 2009 to 2012 tied him for fifth-most in the NFL in that span), the team was good enough to erase the mistakes.
Interestingly, the Bears’ decision to become more offensive-minded after Smith’s firing after the 2012 season forced Cutler to revert back to his gunslinging ways at Vanderbilt. Remember, he was the 2005 SEC Offensive Player of the Year, but he played on a team that compiled an 11-35 record during his four seasons as the starter. Cutler was essentially a one-man show on a team that desperately needed him to make spectacular plays with his arm to have any shot of knocking off one of the heavyweights in the conference. While that reckless approach helped the overmatched Commodores compete in arguably college football’s toughest conference, it also reinforced some bad habits (risky throws/turnovers) that run counter to playing winning football at the position.
Fast-forward to Cutler’s final seasons in Chicago (2013-2016), when he was surrounded by a porous offensive line and hampered by a leaky defense that didn’t transition well after Smith’s departure, and it’s easier to absolve the enigmatic field general for some of the team’s woes. While the Bears failed to win consistently during that span, Cutler posted three of the four best completion rates and three of the best passer ratings of his NFL career. Granted, the numbers don’t outweigh the losses, but the veteran showed football people, particularly Gase, that he is more than capable of playing “connect the dots” football from the pocket.
That’s why I believe the move to Miami will work out well for the veteran quarterback. Cutler is reunited with a coach — Gase, of course, was Cutler’s offensive coordinator in Chicago in 2015 — who actually understands him, and he is surrounded by the deepest and most talented receiver corps he’s had during his career. I know that statement won’t sit well with Bears’ fans reminiscing about the Marshall/Alshon Jeffery combination, but that dynamic duo lacked the versatility and explosiveness of the Dolphins’ trio of Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills and DeVante Parker. Not to mention, the Dolphins have a big-bodied pass catcher at tight end in Julius Thomas capable of dominating in the red zone.
In those four playmakers, the Dolphins have given Cutler a vertical playmaker (Stills), a chain-mover (Landry), a classic WR1 (Parker) and a touchdown-maker with size (Thomas). With that kind of versatility, Cutler can simply take what the defense gives him and move the ball down the field in an efficient manner.
Thus, it’s really on Gase to put the quarterback in the right situation to thrive. Whether it’s through play design or personnel deployment, the Dolphins’ architect has to tweak the system to put Cutler in optimal plays to take advantage of his own skills and the talents of those around him.
“I think he does a really good job of putting quarterbacks in good positions,” Cutler told reporters at his introductory press conference with the Dolphins. “He knows his personnel. He knows defenses, how to attack them. I think he does a real good job of being consistent with the run and the pass and not getting too heavy on one or the other. He’s got a good feel. I think play calling is kind of an art form. It’s not for everybody and he’s got that feel.”
To that point, Gase might lean on the Dolphins’ potent running game to help alleviate the burden on Cutler. Jay Ajayi earned Pro Bowl recognition after rushing for 1,272 yards on the strength of three 200-yard games in 2016, which will certainly catch the attention of defensive coordinators around the league. With most defensive coordinators intent on stopping the running game at all cost, the Dolphins can dictate to the defense by feeding the ball to Ajayi to take advantage of light boxes or force opponents to put an extra defender near the line of scrimmage, leaving the Dolphins’ pass catchers in one-on-one situations on the outside.
If the Dolphins’ reshuffled offensive line can hold its own in the trenches, it’s possible that Cutler could spearhead one of the AFC’s most dynamic offenses. While the numbers might not make Cutler a fantasy wizard, based on the balanced approach that Gase could employ, the overall depth and versatility of the unit could allow the veteran to ride off into the sunset as an unexpected winner.
JOINT PRACTICES: Why they’ve become so valuable to NFL head coaches
Football has long been a game where trends trickle down from the NFL to the high school level, with high school coaches plucking ideas from the pros. But one of the more recent trends has the movement of ideas going in the opposite direction, with NFL coaches using a high school tactic — the joint practice — to develop and evaluate players in the middle of training camp.
Just this week alone, we’ve seen the New England Patriots and Houston Texans, Carolina Panthers and Tennessee Titans, New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Chargers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars square off for multiple practice sessions ahead of their preseason tilts.
Although joint practices have taken place with increasing regularity since the recent Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2011, which changed the training camp landscape by reducing the number of padded practices, it appears that more coaches than ever are embracing the concept to maximize their opportunity to evaluate their personnel in a competitive environment. Instead of relying simply on inter-squad scrimmages and preseason games to see how their young players perform in live action, coaches are scheduling practice sessions with their preseason opponents to get in some competitive work in a controlled setting. Teams are competing on the practice field in one-on-one, seven-on-seven (pass skeleton), nine-on-seven (run period) and team drills (11-on-11) to evaluate personnel and schemes in live action.
While these practices are typically scripted out through pre-practice calls or meetings, the teams are able to practice a variety of situations (blitz, third-down, red-zone, goal-line and two-minute) against a different offensive and defensive schemes and personnel than they’ve faced the entire offseason.
“Just getting reps against different competition instead of the 12 to 13 days we’ve gone against our own defense, that’s worth everything,” said Dirk Koetter prior to joint practice sessions against the Jaguars this week. “That’s gold to go against different guys, different looks.”
Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera echoed that sentiment when he was asked about the benefits of a joint practice session.
“We really believe it’s a great opportunity for our guys to practice well against each other, a new set of people to work against, different philosophies and ideas,” said Rivera prior to his team’s joint sessions with the Titans. “And it should help the players. And for us, it gives us a great opportunity to evaluate.”
On the surface, this is nothing more than what basically every high school coach in America does to prepare players the week before their season opener. But NFL coaches are not only using the joint practice as part of their game preparations, they are beginning to use it as an evaluation tool that allows them to protect their star players from injury.
To that point, the Patriots held out 40 players in their preseason opener following a two-day joint practice session with the Jacksonville Jaguars. While fans were probably disappointed they didn’t see Tom Brady take a single snap, Patriots coach Bill Belichick was able to get his star quarterback and the rest of his first-stringers quality work against the Jaguars’ first-team defense in a more controlled environment. In those practice sessions, the teams can compete intensely while the coaches keep it at “thud” tempo (tacklers are allowed to make initial contact on the ball carrier or pass catcher but not allowed to take them to the ground) to try and reduce the number of unnecessary injuries (which is no guarantee as we saw with Patriots third-rounder Derek Rivers, who tore his ACL in a practice against the Texans).
Joint practices are also valuable to teams because they allow coaches to work on various tactics or schemes in a competitive setting without exposing those strategies to the rest of the league — as they would if they tried them out on a televised preseason game.
That’s why the head coaches of the teams slated to practice together tend to have a mutual level of trust and respect for each other. The secrets exposed on the field are expected to stay between the lines, otherwise it’s pointless for the teams to put their new stuff on display. For this reason, some coaches refuse to participate in joint practices.
“In today’s world, with the technology, there are not a lot of secrets,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said back in 2015. “Really, you have your coaching points, your teaching points. We try to teach on the field. … We try to teach as we’re doing it. I really don’t want anybody hearing that. That’s my own personal feeling. As much as I can keep in house in today’s world I’d like to. I think you give up a little bit of that when you work [with another team].
Reid’s stance is certainly understandable, but others say the benefits of these joint sessions are simply too valuable to pass up.
“They become a really great place for certain types of competition to take place in a controlled environment that you couldn’t do before in the preseason games,” Patriots’ team president Jonathan Kraft told 98.5 The Sports Hub in a pregame interview, via ESPN.com. “Now it allows other players and other situations to play out in the preseason games. These [joint practices] have become a great adjunct to the first few weeks of preseason. I think it makes a big difference. It actually allows you to evaluate your talent in a way you couldn’t before. I think it is a real plus.”
With teams looking to exploit every competitive advantage available, I think it’s interesting some teams are using the high school jamboree in an attempt to help their teams hit the ground running when the regular season begins.
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