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Jordan Love is ready for the big time
In moving on to Jordan Love, the Packers are attempting the impossible. They believe — and it's time to start buying in
Editor’s Note: Back in March, I wrote a long read on the inevitable Aaron Rodgers-Packers divorce and what would come next. Namely: Jordan Love. Being the bone-headed editor that I am, I violated the golden rule — I buried the lead. Below the Rodgers portion was a long-planned and reported, stand-alone piece on Jordan Love and his development. The piece did well (as these things go), but most of the Love stuff was lost amid the Rodgers-Packers-Jets melodrama.
Since that time, we’ve had a TON of new subscribers (thank you!). So I’m re-upping that excerpt for those who missed it. Soon, we will finally have an answer to the Jordan Love question. If you want to read the full piece (and who really wants to revisit that time?) you can find it in full here.
Buried beneath the rubble of all of the Aaron Rodgers melodrama is an important question: Is Jordan Love any good?
Trading Rodgers to New York deal is riskier for the Packers than the Jets — however the other side would like to portray it. There was always a push and pull between the LaFleur offense and the Rodgers way of doing things. When Nathaniel Hackett was a round, serving as the middleman that pulled the two strands together, the trio hit on a well-calibrated ecosystem that dunked all over defenses in the regular season. Last year’s flat-lining was a concern; the offense and its quarterback rarely felt like they were on the same page. Still: I’m not betting against a pissed-off Rodgers to rediscover something approaching his MVP form in a similar setup for one more year.
The Jets are betting that MVP Rodgers is still in there, waiting to be unleashed. As bets go, that doesn’t seem like putting it all on Credit Default Swaps.
The Packers will be happy to see the back of Rodgers and the antics that surrounded his final couple of years with the franchise, but moving on to Love represents a leap into the unknown.
Being emotional in sports is easy. Hanging on to Eli Manning or Ben Roethlisberger or, yes, Aaron Rodgers for an extra year or two is easy. Nobody cancels a season ticket or burns a jersey because the icon is hanging around for another year.
Being cold and calculated is hard. Kicking a Hall of Famer out of the building while they still have a couple of years left at the top level is cold, calculated, and necessary work. It’s how the Packers have been able to sustain a championship level of success across three decades.
In moving on to Love, Green Bay will try to do the impossible: to contend for Super Bowls, year in and year out, in four successive decades with three different quarterbacks.
It’s an almost arrogant position. Scratch that. It is arrogant. What team in its right mind believes it can sustain high-level, Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback play for thirty years?
The Rodgers-to-Love transition is strikingly similar to when the team dumped Brett Favre for Rodgers. The organization drafted the legends replacement early. They grew antsy to push the legend out of the door to kickstart a new age. The young pup waiting in the wings showed intermittent promise in practice. The legend held on, holding the franchise hostage with escalating demands. The two grew tired of one another. The divorce ended with the legend heading to the Jets. Within three years, Rodgers and the Packers were once again holding the Lombardi.
Two years ago, Rodgers and Davante Adams decided to run it back for one last year together under the ‘Last Dance’ moniker, aping the Michael Jordan propaganda series.
The central tension at the heart of the Jordan doc was the idea that drives all great sports breakups: Who is responsible for winning championships? Organizations or players? Jordan-Kraus, Belichick-Brady, LeBron-Riley, Keane-Ferguson. Across sports, dynastic runs have become unstuck as champions fight to divvy up who should claim the credit for winning.
“Players and coaches alone don't win championships,” Chicago Bulls GM Jerry Krause infamously said. “Organizations win championships."
Krause was portrayed as the villain of the Last Dance series. To the Packers, he was a soothsayer. They are the preeminent flag wavers for the idea of the organization above all. No other US sports franchise gets as high on its own supply as that based in Wisconsin. And who can blame them? With back-to-back Hall of Famers at quarterbacks, they have remained in title continental for all but a couple of seasons since 1992.
It is a team and a fan base that has spent the better part of 25 years watching two of the greatest to ever do it. Hall of Fame play isn’t an outlier, it’s the expectation.
Only the Colts have come close to the kind of back-to-back quarterback talent that the Packers have run out on the field since ‘92. They followed the Peyton Manning era with Andrew Luck. And once Luck retired prematurely, the Colts found themselves leaping from one ill-conceived, quick-fix plan to another. They went from model citizens of the league to a laughing stock in the blink of Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz, Matt Ryan, and Jeff Saturday.
But the Packers aren’t the Colts. The Packers have been happy to go against the NFL grain. They’ve planned for the exit of another legend. Love will walk into the huddle with championship expectations from the get-go.
Stepping off the Rodgers’ ledge is a bold but necessary move. The clock is already ticking on Love’s rookie deal. They need to find out if he can play — really play — right now.
It won’t be easy.
Rodgers covered up for issues under the hood throughout his time in Green Bay. He routinely dragged sloppy or awful defensive (or special teams) units into the playoffs, only for those groups to capsize any title hopes come January. He elevated the stock of everyone in the building. “A lot of people have been rewarded, quite frankly, because of his [Rodgers’] ability to go out there and play, and play at such a high level,” LaFleur said this week. “I'm just going to leave it at that.”
Plus, the Packers will continue to pay for the cap sins of the latter stages of the Rodgers era through 2024. It won’t be until 2025 that they have some maneuverability to truly build around Love. By delaying things an extra year, the Packers have lost the initial window when they could take advantage of Love’s rookie contract. Soon, they’ll be forced into a decision about whether to extend Love or not – and at what price.
There could be some wiggle room to add immediate reinforcements once the team figures out the specifics of the Rodgers-to-New York deal. But the chances of adding pieces that can have an immediate impact next season are minimal. Instead, they’ll look once more to the draft.
(POST SCRIPT: They did! The Packers added TE Luke Musgrave, WR Jaylen Reed and TE Tucker Kraft in the draft. You can read a full breakdown of the players and their fits in Green Bay here.)
But the Packers have been building to this moment in the background for a couple of seasons – a source of some of the tension with Rodgers. Since drafting Love in the first round, they’ve tried to straddle two worlds: Preparing for Love and the future while trying to keep the roster competitive with Rodgers. They tried to reset their timeline last offseason, trading away Davante Adams and adding a trio of rookie receivers. They brought back the bulk of Rodgers’ buddies for one final ride last season, but they resisted some of the shock-and-awe tactics that would have torpedoed their core in the post-Rodgers world.
Now, with Rodgers’ trusted lieutenants following him out of the building, presumably to New York, the Packers have reduced the age of the skill position spots surrounding their young quarterback:
QB: Love, 24-years-old
WR: Christian Watson, 23-years-old
WR: Romeo Doubs, 22-years-old
WR: Samori Toure, 25-years-old
TE: Josiah Degura, 26-years-old
RB: Aaron Jones, 28-years-old
The average age of their new-look skill position group: 24.
(Post-Script II: With Musgrave (23), Reed (23) and Kraft (22) they’ve brought that average age down.)
There is upside in a young group growing together — in adjusting their games as they evolve as a unit. When the Packers drafted a pair of rookie receivers last offseason, Rodgers blew off offseason workouts. Love worked relentlessly with the new receiving corps, mastering the LaFleur offense. “He’s trying to learn the offense as well as Coach LaFleur knows it,” Love’s private quarterback coach told Go Long. “That's his whole deal: ‘I want to know the offense as well as Coach LaFleur.’ Almost be that second coach on the field. If Coach starts to talk about a play or how they can scheme up, Jordan wants to finish the sentence.”
Even the most zen of offensive masterminds eventually want to see their offense on the field – egos and all. Rodgers was given full autonomy to adjust or change what LaFleur called, boosting his coach’s reputation, and fattening his wallet. “A lot of people have been rewarded, quite frankly, because of his [Rodgers’] ability to go out there and play, and play at such a high level. I'm just going to leave it at that,” LaFleur said this week. The Love-LaFleur partnership will see the coach out on his own with a quarterback executing his ideas, not freelancing or correcting structural flaws – at least not yet.
LaFleur compromised core parts of his scheme to keep the grumpy Rodgers onside – a compromise a coach is happy to make when working with an MVP. With Love, it will be the uncut LaFleur Experience.
Rodgers and LaFleur battled over the use of motion in the offense. LaFleur likes things whirring throughout the pre-snap process. Rodgers likes things to be static. There’s no right or wrong, it’s just a difference in philosophies.
Rodgers likes to see the whole picture, to snap a free-frame pre-snap so that he can go to work knowing where all the pieces are at the snap. LaFleur wants to use movement, motion, and shifts to attack specific target points, to out-leverage a defense to one spot, or to force doubt and hesitation at the second-level, so often the leading cause of explosive plays.
Over the course of the Rodgers-LaFleur relationship, the two evolved their pre-snap formula: The total volume of pre-snap movement fell; the volume of at the snap motion increased. When the goal was to specifically overwhelm a spot on the field (a fast motion to change the formation or create a void; a wing splicing across the formation to hit the point-of-attack in the run game), motion was in:
Moving to gather intel (trying to uncover rotations or disguises) declined.
The Packers finished 15th in motion rate last season, per Sports Info Solutions. They used a jet motion at the 13th-highest rate in the league. The year before that, they had the 8th fattest motion mark in the league, and ranked 3rd in jet motion usage. Back in 2020, they finished 5th in total motion percentage and 3rd again in jet motion usage.
With Love, the volume of pre-snap movement will likely revert to the LaFleur norm. And with the quarterback’s mobility, LaFleur will introduce fresh wrinkles to the offense.
The Packers are itching to find out if Love, surrounded by a young supporting cast, is the real deal. “It's just time for him to play," GM Brian Gutenkunst said this week. "It's going to be a progression,” head coach Matt LaFleur said on Tuesday. Muted in public, the Packers have been positively giddy about Love in private.
The early signs on the field have been up and down. In his first start in Kansas City in spot duty for Rodgers in 2021, Love was in over his head. He looked frazzled by the complexity and speed of the NFL – and this after sitting for a season. Chiefs’ DC Steve Spagnuolo put the young quarterback in a blender, pushing him to perfect the kind of pre-snap rituals that are old hat for veteran quarterbacks. He did a fine job moving and cajoling the offense into the correct plays – checking runs or audibling out of one look – but he botched his protections.
Spagnuolo blitzed the holy hell out of Love, typically a no-no versus good professional QBs. Love crumbled. The Chiefs blitzed Love on 53.8 percent of his dropbacks, an almost unheard-of number at the pro level. Love struggled with the basics of the pre-snap procedure. Post-snap, he looked off open players and threaded no-chance-in-hell passes to covered ones. You could almost hear Aaron Rodgers chuckling from the comfy confines of his COVID bed. This is the guy you want to replace me with. Are you kidding me?
That flipped last year. Late in the season in Philly, Love entered the lineup in the midst of a blowout. He brought an electric jolt to the Packers’ staccato offense. Pressed into action after a rib injury to Rodgers, Love looked poised and confident. The skittishness from his first outing evaporated. He led the Packers on two scoring drives in the fourth quarter.
The Eagles’ defense didn’t challenge the young quarterback with the same kind of intensity or creativity as Spagnuolo did the year before. When they did, Love appeared to have mastered some of the subtleties of the position that had eluded him in Kansas City.
Mastering the pre-snap proceedings was as important to Love in the 12 months between Kansas City and Philly as the technical developments.
After the issues versus Spagnuolo, Love spent time refocusing on the mechanics of the pre-snap process. Multiple sources who spoke to The Read Optional described Love as being ‘angry’ about the breakdowns in pass protection vs. pressure looks. "All-out (blitz) looks, you know those are going to come in the future after defenses see that,” Love said after the Eagles game, reflecting back on his first outing. “I feel like I have an answer ready for that and make defenses pay. That's kind of where my mindset has been, improving that and improving the understanding of protections and where I need to go with the ball, and different looks."
With less to negotiate pre-snap, Love was free to drop back and sling it, and he carved the top team in the NFC up. He bobbed and weaved away from pressure. He launched strikes downfield. Paired with the crop of rookie receivers, the Packers’ offense looked like it was playing on 1.5x compared to the cumbersome group headlined by Rodgers, Randall Cobb, and Marcedes Lewis. Love finished 6-of-9 for 113 yards with a touchdown, averaging 12 yards per pass attempt. It may have come late in a blowout, but it was a signal that Love was ready to start – if not in Green Bay, somewhere.
Love’s development has been silently simmering away in the background. In some ways, it mirrors Rodgers’ entry to the league. But whereas Rodgers was pushed into remaking his natural mechanics to marry up with the traditions of the league, now, the league has tilted towards embracing Love’s natural style. Love has spent the better part of three years working to try to find consistency with his base, and to better marry his feet to his eyes — and to tie those both to the concepts featured in the Packers’ offense.
He’s no longer skipping steps or blowing past reads. He has worked with longtime mentor and personal quarterbacks coach Steve Calhoun to trim the fat from his game. The outing in Philly was evidence of their work. “It would've put the rest of the NFL on notice,” Calhoun told Go Long. “Like, ‘OK, you got somebody to deal with here over the next 10 years.’”
Love has cleaned up his fundamentals. Against the Eagles, he played with great bounce and rhythm. Everything was in sync. He made plays in structure. He made plays out of structure. There was a zing to his delivery. You could feel the whoosh of his slinky release through the screen:
He showed good feel and anticipation:
It was the smallest of smallest sample sizes, but in there were some tasty treats. Against a rolling cover-8 look, he ripped a back-shoulder fastball away from a descending safety slap-bang in the turkey hole.
I repeat: A FASTBALL SLICING BETWEEN A ROTATING SAFETY AND A CORNER VS COVER 8, PEOPLE! It’s audacious — if only Aaron Jones had held on.
That’s not small stuff, either. That’s someone playing with anticipation and confidence, bordering on downright bravado. The foot pop. The anticipation. The timing. The velocity. The accuracy. I mean, who does this guy think he is? Aaron Rodgers?
In limited reps, Love put on public display all that he and Calhoun had been working on in the background: throwing from different arm angles; speeding up and slowing down based on the pre-snap shell, the crowd at the line of scrimmage and the concept; moving and manipulating defenders with eyes; throwing to landmarks rather than to bodies; throwing to leverage.
Some of that is innate to the Love experience dating back to Utah State. He’s a natural slingshot thrower. But there was little replicable on a down-to-down basis, and little of it was tied to the offense. He played see-it-throw-it fooball. And with his arm and instincts, he saw it and threw it really, really well.
That night in Philadelphia was different. The end results were encouraging, the process behind them even more so. From a scattergun approach to his lower half, Love looked compact and efficient. There’s a fine line when you remake a quarterback’s footwork. Sometimes a quarterback coach winds up turning a natural thrower into a robot. Everything looks correct and replicable but there’s a hiccup in the release. It doesn’t look comfortable; you can see the cogs and gears churning. Okay, it’s three and a hitch. Let me count those out. There’s a lack of fluidity.
Love looked slick in his movements. There was an ease to his base, and different variations depending on the assignment. It didn’t look like a computer that had been re-programmed but a quarterback ready to show off his new work. It looked natural.
It will take some time before Love is a PhD-level passer — particularly in LaFleur’s richly-layered system. As Gutenkunst said, he needs to play. But cleaning up the issues with his feet and working to improve pre-snap point to someone who values the fundamentals and the drudgery of sharpening habits.
Again: that can feel like a small thing. But it’s kind of, sort of the whole enchilada. Love didn’t spend his two years in the wilderness going through the motions waiting for his shot or agitating for a move away. He spent two years working. Ask Rodgers: Rebuilding the elements of your throwing motion that feel natural is hard work. You’re talking hundreds and thousands or reps.
Love absorbed the challenge. He went to work. He corrected his issues and inflated his strengths. “He’s a warrior,” one source who works with Love but is not employed by the Packers told The Read Optional. “He wants to be great. He thinks he can be great. And he’s willing to work to be great.”
The Packers know what they might have on their hands, too. “When we watched the [Eagles] tape back, we all just kind of looked around the room like ‘holy shit’”, a member of the Packers’ offensive staff told The Read Optional. “We’d seen it in practice but to see it against live ammo was something else”.
The mechanical improvements should encourage even the strongest naysayers. Hand up, you’re reading one. Love’s development – and the how of his development – has me more bullish on his future now than at any point in the past, even as the rest of the Packers’ supporting cast leaves something to be desired.
He has both the creativity and vision to be a playmaker. He can sling fire from every conceivable release point. If the consistency with his lower half persists and he’s able to develop as a timing-based thrower, then the Packers will really be cooking with something.
By pushing to move on to Love today, the Packers have decided to bet on themselves, again. To bet on the idea of the organization above all.
Choosing Love over Rodgers means self-imposing a sanction, of sorts – at least in the short-term. The Packers of today have dropped from the top of the NFC to the middle of the pack.
Building from the middle is messy, but it’s preferable to building from the bottom. Ask the Texans or Browns how it feels to stomach successive seasons on the bottom rung of the NFL’s ladder. Typically, it ends with resentments and dismissals all around.
At a minimum, Love will serve as mouthwash for the bad taste of the final days of Rodgers. But in Titletown, that’s not enough. Winning it all is the goal. Stockpiling singles and doubles will help put Love in a position to succeed. But for the Packers to achieve the impossible, the front office needs Love to be a home run selection.
There isn’t much on the line, just the legacy of the league’s most storied franchise, and, in Rodgers, one of the game’s most storied players. Oh, and the reputations of team president Mark Murphy, general manager Brian Gutenkunst, and head coach Matt LaFleur, one of the brightest and most successful young coaches in the league.
Over to you, Jordan. No pressure.