The past four seasons have made Blake Bortles into a running joke, a commentary on the state of quarterback play in the NFL. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Bortles has devolved from potential franchise savior into a running gag on social media. Fans and media take turns piling on the young quarterback.
Even Bortles' team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, hasn't always stood in his corner. They waited until just before the deadline this past May to pick up the fifth year of his rookie contract, an option guaranteed only for injury and a clear sign management felt unenthusiastic about his future. Those doubts persisted into the preseason, when the team seriously contemplated benching him for Chad Henne.
"Basically, I'm just waiting for someone to take that position," Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone said before the team's third preseason game.
The Jaguars didn't need to justify their lack of faith, as Bortles has struggled most of his career. As a rookie, he threw just 11 touchdowns in 13 starts while tossing 17 interceptions. Bortles took some small strides the following year but still threw a league-leading 18 picks. Jacksonville hoped Bortles would take the leap during a pivotal third season. Instead, he cut 12 touchdowns off his total.
Even in 2017, the Jaguars stretched the limits of modern football to play around Bortles' weaknesses. In a Week 5 game against the Steelers, Bortles to attempted a mere 14 passes, throwing the ball just once after halftime in a 30-9 win. Such a concept seems unthinkable at a time when passing numbers continue to skyrocket.
Bortles' struggles affect not only how he is viewed, but also how the Jaguars are viewed. The vast majority think of them as a powerhouse despite their quarterback, winning on the strength of a dominant defense and a ground attack headlined by running back Leonard Fournette. Now more than ever, entering Sunday's AFC championship game at New England, Bortles looks like an obstacle toward winning a championship, not the vehicle who can take them to a Super Bowl.
But while Bortles faces an uphill battle in changing the perception of his abilities, other quarterbacks have rewritten their narratives through playoff success at similar points in their careers.
Few quarterbacks in the modern era have confounded fans and pundits more than Joe Flacco. A first-round pick in 2008, Flacco led the Ravens to the playoffs in each of his first four seasons, including two trips to the AFC championship game. He became the first rookie quarterback to win multiple postseason starts and tied Dan Marino for the second-most combined regular-season and playoff wins for a quarterback during his first three years.
Despite the team's success, Flacco received little credit, instead becoming the punch line to innumerable "is Joe Flacco elite" jokes. Those jabs echoed the concerns of Ravens management, which made several low-ball offers to Flacco as his rookie contract neared expiration. NFL teams almost never allow a franchise quarterback to test the market, suggesting that Baltimore remained unsure whether Flacco deserved such status and the money that accompanies it. Unsatisfied with the offers on the table, Flacco decided instead to play out the final year of his contract, betting on himself to earn a contract befitting a franchise quarterback with his play.
That gamble paid off handsomely. Despite a somewhat pedestrian 2012 regular season, Flacco caught fire in the playoffs. His 282-yard, two-touchdown performance pushed the Ravens to a lopsided victory over the Colts in the wild card round, and his 70-yard strike to Jacoby Jones in the final minute of regulation set up an overtime victory over Peyton Manning and the heavily favored Broncos in the divisional round. Flacco pulled out another gem on the road against Tom Brady and the Patriots in the AFC championship game.
However, Flacco saved his best performance for Super Bowl XLVII. In a wild, tightly contested affair that included a power outage, Flacco remained poised and confident, throwing for 287 yards and three touchdowns and fending off a late push by the 49ers to secure the Ravens' second Lombardi Trophy. For his efforts, Flacco earned Super Bowl MVP honors and, in short order, a record-breaking $120.6 million contract extension.
Flacco hasn't completely shaken his middling reputation. He holds the NFL record for most career pass attempts without a Pro Bowl appearance and has regressed each of the past two seasons. Still, Flacco has entrenched himself as the Ravens' quarterback, something he might never have accomplished without his Super Bowl run.
Five years before Flacco flipped the script on his reputation, Eli Manning pulled off an even more startling career revision. As the little brother of Peyton Manning and a No. 1 overall pick, the younger Manning entered the NFL under the microscope. The spotlight further intensified after Manning's camp forced a trade from the Chargers to the Giants, putting the young quarterback in the country's largest media market on one of its premier franchises.
Under the heightened scrutiny, Manning struggled to crawl out from his older brother's shadow. Over his first three years, he threw nearly as many interceptions (44) as touchdowns (54) while failing to complete more than 60 percent of his passes in any season during that stretch. Though the Giants made playoff appearances in 2005 and '06, they never advanced past wild card weekend, with Manning serving as a culprit for the losses (two touchdowns and four interceptions combined in those games). With the quarterback's development seemingly stuck in neutral, it began to appear New York had made a mistake acquiring him.
The 2007 regular season did little to disprove that notion. Manning led the league in interceptions while completing fewer passes and touchdowns than the previous season. Yet despite Manning's poor play, the Giants sneaked into the playoffs with a wild card on the strength of their defense, a unit led by future Hall of Fame pass rusher Michael Strahan and Pro Bowl defenders Osi Umenyiora, Antonio Pierce and Sam Madison.
Unlike in prior playoff trips, Manning thrived on the big stage. Against the Buccaneers, he completed 20 of 27 passes with two touchdowns. Manning had another two-touchdown performance the following week to help New York knock off the top-seeded Cowboys. In the NFC title game, Manning battled frigid conditions to help his team complete a thrilling overtime upset of the Packers that earned the Giants a date with the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
Virtually no one expected the Giants to keep up with the Patriots, a 12 1/2-point favorite that had already trademarked "19-0" in anticipation of a victory. New York's defense harassed Brady throughout the night, sacking him five times and keeping the score close. Manning mostly avoided mistakes and turned in the defining play of his career -- a 32-yard "helmet" catch -- to secure one of the greatest upsets in NFL history. The Giants hoisted the third Lombardi Trophy in franchise history while Manning earned recognition as the Super Bowl MVP.
Overnight, the victory permanently altered the perception of Manning. While he remained the other Manning, questions regarding his "bust" status ceased immediately. He went on to win another Super Bowl, again over Brady and the Patriots.
Perhaps championship rings shouldn't recalibrate opinions on quarterbacks as significantly as they do, but the fact remains that success in the postseason alters the conversation. Like Manning and Flacco, a successful Super Bowl run won't turn Bortles into a superstar, but he can change the discussion that surrounds him. Rather than a quarterback the Jaguars win in spite of, Bortles can become known as a quarterback with which his team can win it all.