Jaguars better with Fournette? Team says yes, stats say no

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- There isn't a single person in the Jacksonville Jaguars' locker room -- and likely the entire organization -- who believes they're a better team without running back Leonard Fournette on the field.

Surprisingly, the statistics don't bear that out.

Not only are the Jaguars undefeated in games in which the 2017 fourth overall draft pick doesn't play, the offense averages more points and more total yards, and quarterback Blake Bortles is a much more efficient and successful passer. The difference is significant.

However, to take those stats and come to the conclusion the Jaguars are better off without Fournette is ludicrous. The team certainly doesn't feel that way.

"I'm trying to register that," offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. "Just trying to get ready for a game and it's hard for me to believe that. It's hard for me to even hear that. I think Leonard's a fantastic player. He's only going to get better. He's still very young. I think for anybody to say that he's even reached his potential is something you can't say."

As the chart shows, it's startling just how different Bortles' stats are when Fournette doesn't play. Not only are the Jaguars 4-0 in the games without Fournette, they average 127.1 yards and 7.1 points more than they do with him on the field.

Granted, three of those games came against Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Houston, which went a combined 15-33 last season. The Jaguars beat New England last Sunday 31-20, racking up 481 total yards, 27 first downs and going 10-of-14 on third down. Bortles completed 64 percent of his passes for 377 yards and four touchdowns.

A game plan that called for being more aggressive on first down (20 pass plays called), spreading the ball out (nine receivers caught passes), and relying on the pass (45 attempts) helped compensate for Fournette's absence because of a right hamstring injury. So did players raising their level of play, coach Doug Marrone said.

"Let's make sure we understand that Leonard is a very important player for us and a guy that can change games," Marrone said. "To have the other players pick it up and do a good job is obviously important, and I think that's what the players have done."

Marrone and Tom Coughlin, the Jaguars' executive vice president of football operations, made no secret about building their team to rely on the defense and run game. That's why they drafted Fournette fourth overall last season and Marrone joked during camp a year ago that he'd like to run the ball on every play. Fournette did end up with 268 carries, a number that set a franchise rookie record and one that certainly would have been higher had he not missed three games.

Defenses stacked the box to stop Fournette in 2017 (the Jaguars faced more eight-plus man boxes than any team, per ESPN Stats & Information) and Bortles was able to take advantage of that at times. He was the NFL's highest-rated quarterback through the first three weeks of December and completed 71 percent of his passes for 577 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in the two games Fournette did play.

He also threw for a career-high 382 yards on 50 attempts (his sixth game of 35 or more attempts) against San Francisco with Fournette.

"We have had big games throwing the ball when Leonard has been in there," Bortles said. "I think there is definitely more of an emphasis on throwing the ball when Leonard is not in there. We can't do some of the stuff that our offense is built around doing when he isn't healthy and in there. Kind of with some of our other backs, they maybe do things better, differently rather than some downhill things, some of the runs that Leonard is really good at.

"I think more so than anything, it is guys stepping up and wanting to kind of pick up the slack for not having Leonard out there. When we know he's not going to be out there, that is a big part of our game plan. He is a big part of our team and our offense, so we know we have to step up our game and play better to make sure we're picking all of that up."

Not having Fournette for a couple of games is not ideal but manageable, Hackett said. A longer absence -- and there's no guarantee Fournette plays against Tennessee on Sunday -- is something different.

"When Leonard is out there we love it," Hackett said. "We want him out there. You can do a lot of great things with him. He's really fast. Runs downhill. He's a strong runner. He's getting better in the pass protection world. Those are all the things that you want to see come from him, but he's still a young player. Any time you have a young player in that role it takes time to develop."