Doug Marrone had a good idea walking off the field Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium that his team had strayed way too far from their formula for success. My guess is Jaguars’ front-office czar Tom Coughlin sternly reminded him of that fatal stratagem, either on the plane ride home from a 30-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs or early next morning.
The upshot is this: Under no circumstances can the Jaguars throw the ball 61 times. It’s the equivalent of a death sentence.
Only three or four NFL quarterbacks are built to do that and still have a chance to win. None of them are named Blake Bortles.
The Jaguars and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett obviously didn’t intend for Bortles to heave a franchise-record number of pass attempts. Part of it was falling behind 20-0 to KC at halftime, but the truth is the Jaguars — though impacted by running back Leonard Fournette’s prolonged absence with a hamstring injury — must start dialing down the tendency to become overly dependent on Bortles’ arm to move this offense.
Marrone acknowledged regret over the excessive throwing against the Chiefs, saying: “Looking back, maybe we started throwing it a little too early. Maybe we just were pressing too much early, meaning, what are we trying to get accomplished? You’re always going to look at that and you’re not going to sit here and say that, ‘Hey, we’re a team that wants to throw the ball 60-something times or whatever we did [Sunday].”
But even before the KC disaster, the Jaguars were already getting away from the run-first mentality that carried them to the AFC championship game last season. A lot of it was not having Fournette, but the Jaguars can’t just abandon the run simply because the franchise back is out of the picture.
This was the No. 1 rushing team (141.4 yards per game) in the NFL last year — throwing 527 passes and running 527 times — and now it’s 15th (111.0) because the Jaguars have been unable to resist the temptation to get pass-happy. Hackett admits he got a bit gun-shy about running once Corey Grant was sidelined by a foot injury and being unsure about Brandon Wilds (who was released on Tuesday). He wants a balanced offense as much as anybody.
"If we can end the year on 50-50 [balance], that’s a positive thing," Hackett said. "You want to keep that 50-50. That’s something we definitely want to emphasize. At one point, when Corey [Grant] went down [with a foot injury], it was only T.J. in there. Sometimes you get a little bit hesitant to keep pounding with him when you only have one guy you feel great about."
In case you haven’t noticed, Hackett’s offense is airing it out way too much this season. The skewed 66-17 ratio of called pass plays (including five sacks) to runs against the Chiefs means the Jaguars have now dialed up 222 passes out of 344 plays through five games, an astounding 64.5 percent.
Only four NFL teams — Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers — have a bigger disparity between passing and running. It’s no coincidence all have quarterbacks who are far more accurate and with greater big-play reputations than Bortles.
I’m not suggesting the Jaguars shouldn’t ever sling the ball all over the field. You have to do that at different times in today’s NFL. But Marrone, Coughlin and general manager Dave Caldwell orchestrated a successful turnaround last season by making this a run-oriented offense. You can’t do a complete flip just because Fournette is out for an indefinite period, leaving T.J. Yeldon and just-signed veteran Jamaal Charles to carry the load until his return.
If the pace of Bortles throwing 42.2 passes per game holds up, that translates into 675 pass attempts for the season. That’s more than the UCF product threw in 2016 when Bortles set the franchise record of 625 as the Jaguars went 3-13.
Coughlin loathes pass-run imbalance, and right now, the Jaguars are falling back into a dangerous trap. Marrone implied Wednesday that what transpired in Kansas City will get corrected in Sunday’s road game against the Dallas Cowboys.
“That’s not the way we want to play,” Marrone said of the 61 pass attempts against the Chiefs. “If it’s even lower than that, we might have to find a way to keep running the football. I probably should have done a better job of that. I just felt like we were pressing and trying to make plays. I just think overall I have to do a better job of managing that.”
Certainly if the Jaguars are going to play Yeldon on a ridiculously high 77 of 83 snaps like they did against the Chiefs, it ought to give him the ball on third-and-1 from the KC 3 if you intend to go for it on fourth down. Marrone sure would have handed it to a healthy Fournette in that same situation. Even if the Jaguars got the man coverage look they wanted, a 50-50 fade pass to Donte Moncrief — instead of giving Yeldon the ball when he already had four carries on the drive for 37 yards — was a massive oversight.
More than most NFL teams, the Jaguars are run-dependent. Sure, Bortles can win some games with his arm, but it’s not the high-percentage play.
Consider this: Bortles is 2-9 in his career when he throws 45-plus passes, the wins coming against the New England Patriots in Week 2 and the Los Angeles Chargers last year in overtime. But when Bortles has 30 or less pass attempts, he’s a robust 9-3.
Granted, not having Fournette makes it harder for the Jaguars to feature a run-heavy attack, but they can’t stop trying. When they barely came up short of reaching the Super Bowl, the Jaguars’ three-game playoff stretch featured 101 runs and 90 pass plays (including sacks).
So even with a banged-up offensive line and the uncertainty of Fournette’s return, the Jaguars can’t run away from running the ball.
“We have to get back to that,” said Jaguars’ guard Andrew Norwell. “As an offensive line, we have to set the tempo and intensity for the game early on and often. Just keep pounding the rock. That opens up a lot for the offense.”
One thing is certain: airing it out 42 times a game with Bortles isn’t going to get the Jaguars where they want to go. With or without Fournette, they better find their run identity. And soon.
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