JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Next up at quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars: Jake Luton.
He’s the latest in a long list of quarterbacks to start a game since Mark Brunell took his final snap for the franchise in the third week of the 2003 season. While Luton is only starting because Gardner Minshew is out indefinitely with a thumb injury, there are a lot of qualities to like about Luton, a sixth-round rookie from Oregon State.
He’s big (6-foot-6, 224 pounds) with a strong arm. Coach Doug Marrone said he doesn’t act like a rookie -- “he’s not a starry-eyed guy” -- and he picked up coordinator Jay Gruden’s offense pretty quickly.
But what are the chances he’s the next Tom Brady, a sixth-round pick who goes on to win multiple titles and finish his career as one of the best in NFL history? And while it certainly could happen, the odds are the Jaguars’ search to find the player who can carry the team to a Super Bowl is going to continue in 2021.
That gives Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans at TIAA Bank Field (1 pm.. ET, CBS) a bit of a melancholy feel. Though the Texans are 1-6 (their only victory was against the Jaguars in Week 5) and they have significant roster issues because of questionable moves by former GM/coach Bill O’Brien (and a coronavirus case that's caused a quarantine), they do have a franchise quarterback in Deshaun Watson.
Watson could have been on the opposite sideline had they opted to draft him fourth overall in 2017 instead of taking running back Leonard Fournette, who was released before the season and is now with Brady in Tampa Bay. The Jaguars get two reminders a year of that gaffe at least through the 2025 season, made even more painful by the fact that Watson is 5-0 as a starter against the Jaguars. And he had one of his best games against the Jaguars last month.
“You’re giving everything you have to try to get to that quarterback and one little slip, one little ‘can’t protect the gap’, he can extend the play,” Marrone said of Watson, who threw for 359 yards and three touchdowns in the Texans’ 30-14 victory on Oct. 11. “He’s shown that he’s strong enough to kind of shrug guys off, too, spin out of guys and do that, so he has the ability from a quarterback position to not only deliver the ball in the pocket, but to extend plays and get on the perimeter and run.
“He’s a guy that can pull the football and run, so he’s a threat as a runner in a running-game system. You’re looking at someone that has a high level of confidence, has a really good arm, can throw it deep, short, has good accuracy -- plus, he can run, so there’s a lot of things that you have to be able to defend to try to stop him.”
While not as depressing and agonizing as the Cleveland Browns’ search for a franchise quarterback, the Jaguars’ quest has been pretty disappointing. Former general managers James “Shack” Harris and Gene Smith and current GM Dave Caldwell each drafted quarterbacks in the first round -- all of them in the top 10: Byron Leftwich (seventh in 2003), Blaine Gabbert (10th in 2011) and Blake Bortles (third in 2014). All ended up not meeting expectations.
Only Leftwich posted a winning record as a starter (24-20) and only Bortles (24-49) won a playoff game. Gabbert won just five times in 27 starts.
David Garrard and Chad Henne are the only other QBs to have started more than four games since Brunell’s run ended in 2003. Garrard, a fourth-round pick in 2002, went 39-37 as a starter and is the only other QB since Brunell to have won a playoff game. Henne, a free-agent signee in 2012, beat out Gabbert to be the team’s starter and went 5-17 before giving way to Bortles in 2014.
What really bothers Jaguars fans is thinking about what could have been. And while you can play that game with every franchise, it still stings:
The Jaguars took receiver Reggie Williams ninth overall in 2004. Two picks later, Pittsburgh drafted Ben Roethlisberger. (Remember, the Jaguars took Leftwich the year before, so a QB really wasn’t in play).
They drafted punter Bryan Anger with the seventh pick of the third round in 2012. Seattle took Russell Wilson five picks later. (Again, the Jaguars took Gabbert the year before, so the team didn’t view QB as a need).
In 2017 the team bypassed Watson and Patrick Mahomes and instead took Fournette.
In 2018, the Jaguars drafted defensive tackle Taven Bryan 28th overall in 2018. Four spots later, Baltimore took Lamar Jackson. Bryan has nine tackles in seven games this season. Jackson was the 2019 MVP.
And then there’s Nick Foles -- the biggest free-agent signee in Jaguars history -- and arguably the biggest bust. The Jaguars gave him a franchise-record $50.125 million as part of a four-year, $88 million deal. Their return? An 0-4 record, 736 yards, three TD passes and two interceptions -- and a fourth-round pick in 2020 when they traded him to Chicago last March.
Minshew’s play in relief of an injured Foles last season, and his production after taking over as the starter when Foles struggled in his return, earned the 2019 sixth-round pick a chance to prove that he could be the franchise quarterback around whom the Jaguars could build.
It doesn’t look like he is.
Minshew got off to a hot start in 2020, completing 75.4% of his passes for 512 yards and six touchdowns with two interceptions in the Jaguars' first two games, but he has struggled since then. He hasn’t significantly improved on the issues that plagued him as a rookie last season: comfort in the pocket, arm strength, throwing receivers open and working the middle of the field.
“Gardner is an absolute recess, sandlot playmaker. That’s what he is. It helps him make a lot of plays,” NFL analyst Dan Orlovsky said. “[He] is a little careless with the football. You’d like to see him not be so careless with the football, but that’s such a fine line with a player like that.”
“I think that there’s still some games left for him to prove that he could be a guy that they look forward to in the future, but he’s got to value the ball more.”