Green Bay Packers

Midweek Musings: Packers-Bortles pairing a telling development

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In the years since starting for the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2017 AFC Championship game, quarterback Blake Bortles’ NFL path has snowballed into that of a journeyman.

Despite exercising his fifth-year option — a decision available for any former first-round draft pick — the Jaguars elected not to retain Bortles following the 2018 season.

Often the butt of jokes as the latest in a long line of highly-drafted quarterbacks that didn’t pan out, Bortles landed with the Los Angeles Rams in 2019. There he’d have an opportunity to salvage his career with noted offensive guru Sean McVay. Or, if nothing else, Bortles could prove himself to be a valuable backup quarterback.

Bortles instead has toiled around Los Angeles, then Denver, then Los Angeles again as a third-string or practice squad quarterback, only needed in a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency situation.

On May 13, Bortles agreed to make the Green Bay Packers the latest stop in his professional career, agreeing to a one-year deal.

In any other offseason, such an agreement would be shrugged off as immaterial. Bortles has not appeared in an NFL game since 2019 and has not started a game since 2018, and the best days of his career appear to be well behind him.

It should come as no surprise that general manager Brian Gutekunst brought in another quarterback. He warned us all he’d do so following draft weekend. As he correctly pointed out at the time, Green Bay had only two quarterbacks under contract following the draft: longtime starter Aaron Rodgers and presumed successor Jordan Love. The other member of the Packers’ 2020 quarterback room, Tim Boyle, departed to sign with the Detroit Lions and, ironically, might actually compete for a starting gig alongside Jared Goff.

Bringing in Bortles this offseason, considering Rodgers’ murky status and Love’s apparently rawness, is at the very least eyebrow-raising and could provide a gaze into Gutekunst’s current mindset.

Los Angeles Rams quarterbacks Blake Bortles, right, and Jared Goff warm up before an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

1) It could mean … absolutely nothing. With only two quarterbacks on the roster at the time of Bortles signing (Green Bay has since added former University of Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert), the Packers literally did not have enough throwers to properly conduct a practice.

Bortles’ one-year contract details have not been released, but he’s likely to come in around the veteran minimum, which means the Packers could cut him after training camp with little to no cost.

Bortles already has a relationship with offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett from their time together in Jacksonville, so his ability to grasp the offense should be seamless.

It’s the classic low-risk, high-reward signing. If Bortles stinks, there’s no hard feelings and you let him go after camp. If he looks like the quarterback that once threw for 4,428 yards and 35 touchdowns, you keep him as the primary backup and continue to allow Love to come along at his own pace.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Jordan Love (10) before an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov 15. 2020, between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Green Bay Packers in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

2) It could mean … the Packers are concerned about Jordan Love. Gutekunst has been very consistent, whether it be immediately after his selection in the 2020 NFL draft or the update he provided during this year’s draft weekend, in saying that Love is still has plenty to work on before he’s a viable NFL quarterback.

That jives with the scouting report coming out of Utah State. Despite all the arm talent, Love was deemed a bit of a project. And even Aaron Rodgers couldn’t fully grasp Matt LaFleur’s offense after only a year, so it’s understandable that Love would need as much time, if not more.

It’s quite possible that, assuming Rodgers returns, that the Packers lack confidence in Love to step in and keep the ship afloat in the scenario that their future Hall of Famer misses time.

There’s several schools of thought on how to handle the backup quarterback position. Former Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator (and current consultant for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) Tom Moore was once asked why Peyton Manning’s backups didn’t receive more practice snaps. He answered, in more vulgar terms, that if Manning were to go down the team’s chances went down with it, and there’s no sense in practicing for the doomsday scenario.

Now, the Packers have suffered through two doomsday scenarios with Rodgers in both 2013 and 2017 when he missed several games with a broken collarbone, and have seen firsthand what happens when there’s not a capable backup. Certainly there’s incentive for the Packers to add a veteran that can potentially keep the team afloat without its starter.

But unlike Seneca Wallace or Scott Tolzien or Brett Hundley, Love is a first-round quarterback and shouldn’t need to be protected from spot duty in his sophomore season.

Furthermore, it’s fair to ask if Gutekunst wasn’t ready to hand backup duties to Love, why not bring back Boyle? Even for a cash-strapped team, is the $2+ million really that much for an insurance policy that has the system down pat and is already familiar with his teammates?

It’s possible that something changed since March 12, the day it was reported the Packers would not retain Boyle, and May 13, the day the Packers signed Bortles. Which leads us to…

FILE – In this Jan. 3, 2021, file photo, Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, left, talks to Aaron Rodgers during the second half of an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears in Chicago. LaFleur reiterated his hope that he’d get to continue working with Rodgers this season while offering no news on the quarterback’s status. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

3. It could mean … the Packers are concerned about Aaron Rodgers. If Gutekunst was 100% sure, or even 75% sure, that Rodgers would be returning for 2021, does he sign a veteran like Bortles? If you’re looking for a “camp arm,” why bring in a known quantity with a limited ceiling, but NFL experience, instead of bringing in another younger quarterback like Benkert? Or Manny Wilkens, the third-stringer from 2019 that similarly knows LaFleur’s offense and has a rapport with the receiving group?

Betting odds shouldn’t favor it, but the possibility that the Packers signed Bortles as a last resort option to start games cannot be dismissed out of hand. In the instance that the Packers refuse to trade Rodgers and Rodgers refuses to play, Bortles is about the best option available in the May quarterback market.

To be clear, the Packers will be significantly diminished in 2021 if Bortles or Love have to start games this season. Packers fans only have to look south west to Chicago to see how much a mediocre quarterback can sink an otherwise talented team.

Hopefully, come August, the Bortles signing will be a non-story. Rodgers and the Packers will have a (somewhat) harmonious understanding, Love can continue to work on his game, and Bortles is just two more eyes helping his teammates study for upcoming games without having to play meaningful snaps.

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