Blake Bortles Truly Is the Master of Garbage Time

No one in the NFL seems to pad his numbers once the game is out of reach like Blake Bortles. Is he the king of garbage time?

You might not have seen Thursday Night Football this week.

Maybe you had plans to go out. Maybe you chose to watch NBA basketball. Maybe you just didn’t want to watch the Titans play the Jaguars.

If that’s the case, maybe you did just check the box score and look at Blake Bortles’ statistics, and maybe you were actually impressed with what you saw: 33 completions on 54 attempts for 337 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. By our advanced metrics here at numberFire, Bortles produced 11.49 Net Expected Points (NEP), good for an above-average 0.21 NEP per drop back.

Despite Jacksonville’s 36-22 defeat, maybe you even ended up closing the tab on your browser thinking Bortles had a pretty good night. In reality, he simply did what he has made a habit of doing in his career: playing poorly before padding his stats when the game was well out of reach.

A Garbage Time Masterpiece

If Bortles is the Da Vinci of garbage time, Thursday was his Mona Lisa.

Through one half of football, Tennessee led Jacksonville 27-0. At this point, Bortles had completed 7 of 16 passes for 64 yards and lost nine yards due to a sack, “good” for a 3.2 net yards per drop back average. In terms of NEP, he was averaging -0.23 per pass play and generating positive NEP on just 29.4% of his drop backs (the league averages going into the game: 6.5 net yards per drop back, 0.13 NEP per drop back, 47.4% Success Rate).

By the end of the third quarter, the Jaguars trailed 33-8. Bortles led a touchdown drive to start the period, but overall, he was still just averaging 4.6 yards and 0.01 NEP per drop back with a 40.0% Success Rate.

It was a better third quarter, but overall, his stat line still made it evident that he was having a very rough night.

Fast forward to the 8:07 mark in the fourth quarter. Bortles has just thrown an incomplete pass on fourth down, dropping Jacksonville’s win expectancy to 0.01%. The game is all but over, it has been an awful one for the Jaguars, and Bortles has the line to show for it: 207 yards passing, 20 completions on 38 attempts, and two sacks for a loss of 15 yards, translating to 4.8 net yards per drop back and a 52.6% completion percentage.

The advanced stats up to this point are somehow worse, as Bortles has accounted for -0.82 Passing NEP, a -0.02 NEP per drop back average, and a 42.5% Success Rate.

Even if you were watching the Bulls and Celtics, you can probably infer what happens next...

Bortles led touchdown drives on Jacksonville’s last two possessions and put up a superb stat line in the process, albeit one that did not budge the game’s win probability graph an inch. In the game’s final 5:19, he completed 13-of-16 passes for 130 yards and 2 touchdowns (an 8.1 yards per drop back average), amassing 12.30 NEP.

On these final throws, his adjusted net yards per pass average (ANY/A) was 10.6, his NEP per drop back average was 0.77, and his Success Rate was 81.3%. The NFL leaders in each category have marks of 10.9, 0.36, and 56.2%, respectively (adjusted net yards per pass takes the raw net yards average and adjusts for touchdowns and interceptions; it is the box-score passing stat with the highest correlation with winning).

The finish was good enough to completely wipe away Bortles' putrid start and make it look like he actually had a good game.

The King of Garbage Time?

While Bortles’ fantasy owners laughed with delight and owners of the Tennessee defense cried into their pillows, NFL Twitter is on to the Jaguars' quarterback.

What of this final claim? Is Bortles actually the master of these meaningless late-game situations?

While we can't truly know if he is the “best” ever here, we can at least look at the last decade. Since 2006, 53 quarterbacks have at least 150 drop backs in one-score games with another 150 when his team is trailing by nine or more in the fourth quarter. It may seem like a liberal use of the term “garbage time,” but consider: an average team with the ball at its own 20 trailing by 9 at the start of the fourth quarter has about a 9% chance of winning, per the Pro Football Reference win probability calculator.

Unsurprisingly, the top quarterbacks in terms of ANY/A in one-score games during this span are Aaron Rodgers (7.5), Peyton Manning (7.5), and Tom Brady (7.4). The leaders in garbage time were Rodgers (7.3), Philip Rivers (7.0) and (drumroll please….), Blake Bortles (!), who had a 7.0 average coming into Thursday.

Here are his stats in the two splits (the game versus Tennessee is not included):

Situation Dropbacks Comp% TD% INT% Sk% First Downs/Pass Rating ANY/A
1-score games 848 56.9 3.2 3.5 8.4 0.29 71.3 4.3
"Garbage Time" 273 66.5 6.8 4 8.1 0.43 99.1 7
Difference ---- 9.6 3.6 0.5 -0.3 0.14 27.8 2.7

As you might have guessed, Bortles’ 2.7 increase in ANY/A is the largest among the 53 quarterbacks in the sample. Here are the top five overachievers.

Player 1-Score ANY/A "Garbage Time" ANY/A Difference
Blake Bortles 4.3 7 2.7
Dan Orlovsky* 4.1 6.3 2.2
Shaun Hill 5.3 6.7 1.4
Tarvaris Jackson 4.4 5.7 1.3
Joe Flacco 5.9 7 1.1

It might be tempting to make this about some kind of “clutch” factor, but of Bortles’ four career fourth-quarter comebacks, only one involved overcoming a two-score, fourth-quarter deficit. Also, in one-score games in the fourth quarter, his ANY/A drops to a putrid 3.3 on 191 drop backs -- not exactly Michael Jordan in the 1998 Finals.

If you are curious, here are the five guys whose numbers declined the most upon entering garbage time.

Player1-Score ANY/A"Garbage Time" ANY/ADifference
Colin Kaepernick6.52.6-3.9
Brett Favre*5.93.7-2.2
Ryan Tannehill5.73.6-2.1
Matt Schaub*6.64.7-1.9
Kirk Cousins6.44.5-1.9

(*while Orlovsky, Favre and Schaub all had earlier debuts, these numbers only include their performances beginning in 2006).

Returning to Bortles, his overall career numbers, such as his 5.1 ANY/A, 58.9% completion rate, and 1.3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, are generally subpar. When we also consider much of the good stuff has taken place only after the Jaguars become unlikely to win, it becomes easy to see why they could soon begin yet another search for a new quarterback.