To paraphrase Rodger Goodell, “In the first round of the NFL 2020 draft the Green Bay Packers select… Quarterback Jordan Love”
Say what? Did we hear that correctly? A Quarterback for the Packers? Have you ever heard of Aaron Rodgers? The QB who led the Packers to a 13-3 record in 2019? The QB who won Super Bowl XLV?
For his part, Rodgers was fairly public with his disappointment regarding the Packers’ first round pick. The club was poised for another Super Bowl run and Rodgers fancied the idea of another vertical threat to compliment his favorite receiver Davante Adams. Most draft analysts and sports media pundits were shaking their heads. The pick in the 2020 draft started a rift between Rodgers and the Packers’ front office that would fester for three more years. Ultimately, it culminated in the Spring 2023 trade sending Aaron Rodgers to the New York Jets. This trade also elevated Jordan Love to QB1 on the Packers’ depth chart to start the 2023 season. At the start of the season there were plenty of questions about Love’s ability to slide into a QB1 position. After all, that spot had been occupied by not one but two Hall of Famers: Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, since 1992.
As of last Sunday most of those questions have been put to rest. The biggest upset so far in the NFL Playoffs has been the Packers’ stunning upset of the Dallas Cowboys last weekend in Dallas: 48-32. Stunning for a variety of reasons. Stunning since the Cowboys were seeded #2 in the NFC with a 12-5 record while the Packers at 9-8 sat at #7. Stunning as the Cowboys had won sixteen consecutive home games. Stunning because the Cowboys had the #5 rated defense in the NFL. And stunning because the 48 spot the Packers put on Dallas is the most points the Cowboys have ever coughed up in the post-season.
Smarts and Guts
So, how did this happen? How did the Packers go from an internal feud between star QB Aaron Rodgers and GM Brian Gutekunst to getting back into the NFC playoff picture in a big way? My observation: the Packers have smarts and guts. Let’s start with the smarts. How did they settle on Jordan Love as the QB of the future? I can tell you, it wasn’t apparent to a lot of NFL Draft “experts.”
Jordan Love is from a small town outside Bakersfield, California. His father, Orbin Love, was with the Bakersfield police department and his mother Anna was with the California Highway Patrol. You know, CHIPS? So Jordan had a lot of discipline coming from the top. But tragically, Jordan would lose his father at age 14. Since Orbin had been his biggest supporter in sports, Jordan contemplated giving up football when he lost his dad. Ultimately, Jordan’s mom would convince him to take another year to sort things out, which proved prophetic.
It wasn’t easy for Jordan. He was also a very late bloomer. As a QB at Liberty High he was not a physical specimen, not like the 6’4” 220 lbs he is today. He was a two-star recruit who led his team to the state semi-finals. But Jordan, who actually grew 9 inches and gained 80 pounds between his freshman year in high school through his freshman year in college, was not highly recruited. In fact, his only D-l offer came from Utah State.
After redshirting his freshman year and adding on those final inches and pounds, he was ready to play some ball in 2017. He would start the final six games of the 2017 season for the Aggies and in the 2018 season he led his team to an 11-2 record, passing for a school record 3,567 yards with 32 TD passes and and only 6 interceptions. He was named to the All-Mountain West Conference second team and labeled as a potential future NFL first round pick.
But, it’s never easy, right? At least not for most of us. Following the 2018 season, Utah State coach Matt Wells would leverage his success by taking the head job at Texas Tech. Gary Anderson would take over and find himself with a great QB but not much else as the Aggies lost four starters from their offensive line to graduation. The team fell to 7-6 and so did Love’s stats as he threw for only 20 TDs and added a career high 17 interceptions to the mix. Most draft pundits had Jordan Love falling out of the first round, and while he came out of the NFL combine with good athletic scores, he ranked as the #5 QB in the draft.
The Packers Have Football IQ!
The 2020 NFL Draft was a crowded field for Quarterbacks. Joe Burrow (LSU/ Bengals) was the first pick in the first round followed by Tua Tagovailoa (Bama/Dolphins), Justin Herbert (Oregon/Chargers) and a surprise pick of Jordan Love by the Packers ahead of Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts who went to the Philadelphia Eagles in the second round. This is where the Packers really got smart.
Mark Murphy is the the President and CEO of the Green Bay Packers. He also happens to be a former teammate of mine with the team formerly known as the Washington Redskins. We also happened to play against one another when I was a QB at Lehigh and “Murph” was a safety at Colgate. Mark Murphy is not your typical retired football player. While playing as our starting FS with the Redskins, he was also working on his Masters degree from American University. Later, after Mark played in two Super Bowls and led the league in interceptions in 1983, he obtained his law degree from Georgetown. So when I say the Packers are smart, I know what I’m talking about.
By careful evaluation the Packers came to the conclusion that Jordan Love could be their Quarterback of the future. He was an eye-catching athlete who logged a 4.7 forty at the combine. He possessed arm strength that allowed him to deliver the ball off platform or even off balance when the situation dictated. He not only had a cannon, but he had the type of “touch” that was perfect for the vertical seam routes featured in the NFL. However, the Packers also knew they were not in the best position to obtain him. So, in the first round of the 2020 draft the Packers traded up to the 26th pick to select Jordan Love. They also must have known they had a bit of a PR problem with that move, from not only the sports media, but from their incumbent QB1.
Sit, Watch and Learn
I have never discussed this with Mark Murphy but it would have been pretty easy to conclude that Aaron Rodgers was going to have a problem with this pick. It’s also pretty easy to conclude Aaron would be public with his thoughts. I mean, I admire Rodgers as a HOF QB and everything that he has accomplished on the football field, but he’s been out there, right? He’s made trips to Peru in pursuit of psychedelic drugs (OK, he went to Berkley so he gets it honestly!). He’s been a COVID vaccination conspiracy theorist. Most recently he’s suggested comedian Jimmy Kimmel was an acquaintance of disgraced financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Kimmel is not laughing, he’s lawyering up.
It was a smart pick, but it was also a gutsy pick. They selected Jordan Love with a valuable first round pick. They even traded up to get him. They picked a guy who would probably sit for two or three years as Aaron Rodgers was still in his prime (Rodgers would win his 3rd and 4th NFL MVP awards in 2020-2021) knowing the best education any young QB could have would be sitting on the bench behind Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers. Smart move.
And that’s exactly what happened. In his rookie year of 2020 Jordan Love was never even activated for the Sunday roster and practiced with the scout team as QB3. In 2021 Love moved up the depth chart to QB2 and Jordan saw his first action both in relief and once as a starter after Rodgers was held out of the Kansas City game for testing positive to COVID19. Ooops. The Pack would go 13-4 and lose to the 49ers in the Division round of the playoffs. Rodgers would earn his 4th NFL MVP award. Love would complete 36 of 62 attempts for 411 yards with 2 TDs and 3 interceptions. The understudy was still a work in progress.
It was Finally Time for Some Love
In 2022 the magic of the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers’ reign over the team would wear thin. The Packers had gone 13-3 in both 2019 and 2020 and posted a 13-4 record in 2022. Rodgers won the NFL MVP award in both 2020 and 2021. But in 2022 the worm turned. The Packers’ roster had aged and the past few drafts were not lush with replacements. Rodgers played well (as he almost always does) but it wasn’t enough. The season would come down to the final game vs the Detroit Lions. The Packers at 8-8 needed a win and some help to make the playoffs for the 4th consecutive year. It did not happen. The Lions prevailed 20-16, and it would be Rodgers’ last game as a Packer.
Coach Matt Lafleur has been asked when he knew Jordan Love was ready to take over the leadership of the Packers offense. He replied with a great story. Turns out the turning point for Lafleur was earlier in the 2022 season. The Packers were playing a big game vs the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday Night football and Rodgers went down after injuring some ribs. In came QB2. Love immediately hit WR Christian Watson for a 63 yard bomb to pull the Packers closer, although still down 37-23.
Lafleur’s story tracks back to a very unique coaching technique that I find brilliant. Lafleur and QB coach Tom Clements (think Notre Dame) will sit down with their QB Room and go over every play designed for the current week’s game plan. Each QB is asked to rank the plays and eventually identify plays they would label, “don’t call this play if I go in.” The brilliance is that every QB has his favorite plays and also has plays they dread to run. It’s an individual thing and varies from QB to QB. They all have different strengths and weaknesses.
“Let it Eat!”
So Jordan Love comes into the Eagles game and Matt Lafleur keeps seeing this defensive look from the Eagles that is perfect for a play in the game plan. The problem is the play is on Love’s, “do not call list.” As Lafleur tells it, “I keep seeing the look” and finally he “spit into the headset to his QB, “Hey, do you trust me? Can I call this play?” To which Love responded, “Yeah, let’s let it eat!” On the play Jordan Love delivered a strike to WR Allen Lazard for a 17 yard gain. Green Bay lost by a touchdown 40-33 but Matt Lafleur found his new Quarterback.
If you fast forward from 2022 to two weeks ago, the Packers found themselves at the playoff precipice again, sitting on an 8-8 record and needing a win to go 9-8 and advance to the playoffs. There was a new QB under center. Jordan Love, in the biggest game of his career, went 27 of 32 for 316 yards and 2 TDs. The Pack defeated the Bears 17-9 and advanced to the playoffs. Last week in upsetting the Cowboys Jordan Love would throw some of the prettiest passes you’ve ever seen while connecting on 16 of 21 for 272 yards and 3 TDs with zero turnovers. Smooth as silk.
The Packers started 3-6 in 2023 with their new QB. There were rumblings. But there were also 17 rookies and first year players on the 2023 team to start the season. Everyone needs the chance to grow up, right? Well, the Packers were smart enough to stick with their new leader and Green Bay finished the season 7-2 over its last 9 games (including the Cowboys win). All Jordan Love would do is throw for 21 TDs against only 1 pick in those last nine games. The ultimate test comes this weekend as Green Bay travels to San Francisco to take on the # 1 seed 49ers (12-5). Lots of smarts and guts on the field for both teams in this game. But, would you really bet against a QB who just might beat you with a play off his “Don’t call this play if I go in” list?