'He can be one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL:' A chat with the man who knows Jordan Love best
Steve Calhoun has coached the Packers quarterback since eighth grade. This is a new Jordan Love, too. Calhoun details exactly why Love is a completely different QB in Year 3.
The meteoric rise of others in the 2020 draft did him zero favors. When Joe Burrow is leading the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl and Justin Herbert is throwing for 5,014 yards in Year 2 — and when there’s even all sorts of newfound hype around Tua Tagovailoa in Miami — it’s easy to forget about that fourth quarterback taken: Jordan Love.
Quarterbacks do not wait three years these days. This does not neatly fit into the timeline of talk radio. Thus, Love has made quite a few folks weep and scream.
Shockingly enough, however, there’s more than one way to develop a quarterback.
Burrow (first overall) and Herbert (sixth) were ready to star instantly. Tagovailoa (fifth) now has every chance to excel with weapons galore around him. Love? The Packers selected him 26th overall for a reason. He possesses high-end athleticism and arm strength. Simply, he was raw. Extremely raw. In our age of instant gratification, it’s difficult to take a deep breath and realize Love could be special… in time. Aaron Rodgers waited three full seasons before taking over for Brett Favre and he often looked dreadful through those training camps.
For Love, this summer has been an undeniable turning point. It’s obvious the game has slowed down for him and all of those physical traits can finally rise to the surface.
Forget the box score. The numbers do Love no justice. Drops and wrong routes led to picks at San Francisco and, the next week, his best plays were actually four incompletions. I don’t care if it’s a preseason game against the New Orleans Saints. Those throws are clear evidence that Love is figuring out the position. The best of the bunch? Off play-action, Love rolled left, set his feet at his own 12-yard line and rainbowed a deep shot along the sideline to rookie Samori Toure. That window shuts fast, too. Love’s ball arrives a split-second before the safety arrives.
This isn’t the QB people remember from that loss at Kansas City last season.
So to figure out what exactly changed in his game, I thought it was worth checking in with the man who has coached Love since eighth grade: Steve Calhoun of “Armed & Dangerous.” You may remember Calhoun from our piece on Love that wild summer of 2021. Back when the Packers had no clue if Rodgers wanted to play football for them. Only time will tell if the organization should’ve unloaded the unhappy Rodgers for an unlimited bounty of picks and prospects, but at the very least? At this rate? Love is giving Green Bay no choice but to pick up his fifth-year option after this season.
And if Rodgers retires after this season, Love should be ready.
Tonight’s preseason finale against the Chiefs may be the last time people see Love for a while.
You’ll love Calhoun’s exceptional insight. He details precisely how Love has evolved as a quarterback. Calhoun helped Love learn how to use his two eyes in two very different ways to read the whole field. The footwork needed an overhaul, too. If you like the Packers, Love or — most of all — simply enjoy nerding out on the quarterback position, this Q&A with one of the best private coaches in the game is for you.
Go Long is an independent newsletter completely powered by YOU. Want longform journalism delivered right to your inbox? Join our community right here. Both free and pay options are available:
To you, what pops with his game now? When you’re watching Jordan deliver on the field everything you’ve been working on behind the scenes, where has he had his breakthrough?
Calhoun: I think the familiarity with the offense. The confidence that coaches give him that, “Hey, it’s OK. If you make a decision and you see it, we’re going to stand behind you. As long as you can explain why you did it and what you saw, if you’re good with it then we’re good with it.” That confidence right there is giving Jordan what you see on the field. That’s a big part of it.
The incompletions were even more impressive than the completions.
Calhoun: Those were some incredible footballs he threw. Playing quarterback, they either love you or hate you. He had a couple rough throws against San Francisco and that’s stuff that we worked on: “If you’re going to throw the ball outside of the numbers, make sure you miss outside and put your body in the correct position to throw guys open. So, if it’s not on the money, it’s going out of bounds. It’s out of harm’s way of that defender.” I shot him a text after that game and said, “Hey, we have to go back to the fundamentals.” Whether it’s Jordan or any other quarterback I train — during the offseason, during our workouts — we build ourselves a mental checklist of things you need to think about right before you throw. In our sessions, it’s not a high-pressure (situation) with pass rushers running at you and defenses rotating so you can think about those things on your checklist that I want you to execute while you’re dropping, while you’re making that throw. Things that are not muscle memory, you have to think about it in order for your body to do it. That’s the time to do it. That’s when you actually have time to think about it and go, “OK, man. Coach Calhoun wants me to make sure I get my shoulders out in front of this receiver to the sideline to make sure I can throw him open.” So you create that muscle memory during the offseason. And that’s when you see it translate into games. Sometimes, you need a reminder of that. It was good to see him come back that next week and make some really nice throws.
A mental checklist as you step up to the line of scrimmage? That type of thing?
Calhoun: When you’re in the game, your checklist is different: “OK, where are the safeties at? Where are the outside linebackers? Is it an ‘over’ front? Is it an ‘under’ front? Is it a 3-4?” It’s a different checklist in the game vs. when we’re in our sessions. But when we’re in our sessions, we can really focus on our little details. Like, “OK, make sure our shoulders are outside the numbers and really in front,” and I’ve talked to Jordan about, “If you look at the receiver and you throw the ball, by the time the ball gets there, it’s going to be behind him. So, I talked to him about using full-field vision. And one point was if I’m throwing the ball to the sideline — I want to give you this visual — if I’m throwing to my left sideline, I talked to him about, “With my left eye I’m looking to where I want to throw the ball and with my right eye I’m just tracking that receiver into that window.” Because if I turn my head to look at that receiver, by the time I throw the ball and the ball gets there? It’s behind him. So if I just throw the ball to where my left eye’s looking, by the time the ball gets there the whole mesh point with the ball and where the receiver’s going to be, it all matches up. So, we really worked a lot of that. Because if you look at the receiver, your shoulder is turned back to the receiver and it ends up being behind him.
And the other thing — I talked to Coach LaFleur about it at the Combine a year ago — was Jordan’s balance as he’s delivering the football. One of the things we both noticed was when he plants his left foot, his left heel doesn’t come down on the ground. So he’s throwing the ball on the ball of his foot. It’s hard to have balance on your delivery when you’re transferring weight to your front foot if your left foot’s not flat on the ground. That causes balance issues. And if there’s no balance, there’s no accuracy. So my whole thing was always — through this offseason and last year — “Hey, flat left foot. Flat left foot. Flat left foot.”
Those are two massive upgrades.
Calhoun: Those are huge.
As you’re explaining it, I’m actually sitting in my truck looking out into the woods trying to see two different things with both of my eyeballs. I’ve never really thought of it like that, but you really can.
Calhoun: You really can. You really can. Because as soon as you look at the receiver… and it sounds a little bit weird. I’m like, “Hey, if you look at the receiver with both of your eyes, by the time you get the ball there, it’s going to be behind them.” So it sounds a little bit like a chameleon splitting his eyes. It sounds weird at first. But when you do it — do it live — and you focus and you trust it, you go “Ah man, that ball’s out in front of him every time.” If it’s crossing route, going across the middle, if the receiver’s to the left side of me and he’s running a 10-yard in, now it’s my right eye looking to where I want to throw the ball and it’s my left eye tracking the receiver to that window, to where I’m throwing the ball. It forces the quarterback to use full-field vision.
And he wasn’t doing that before?
Calhoun: He was not. He was not. Sometimes, he would do it just because he’s a good quarterback and a good athlete and he’s able to make throws. Even when his shoulders were not outside of the receiver, he could still make adjustment with the arm and still be able to get the ball outside in front of the receiver. But it wasn’t consistent.
How did you pick up on this yourself? Where did you learn this?
Calhoun: It’s just come through my 19 years of training quarterbacks. Running Armed & Dangerous, you just really have to think outside the box on how you get quarterbacks to do what you’re asking them to do. It’s not as simple as, “Hey, throw the ball out in front of him.” You can say, “Keep your shoulders out in front of him,” but if you don’t talk about the eyes — and your eyes aren’t connected to your front shoulder — then it doesn’t work. So, it’s thinking outside the box and trying to come up with creative ways to help him be successful on each play that he’s throwing the ball.
Don’t miss our 2022 Kickoff series of features coming soon. By subscribing here, you’re taking an active role in supporting our independent journalism. Go Long is powered by YOU. No advertisers, no corporate overloads. Only you:
Is this common? I’ve never heard that before. To your knowledge, how common is that eye usage?
Calhoun: I’ve never heard of it. I’ve never heard anybody talk about it and I’ve been working down at the Manning Passing Academy for 10 years. We talk a ton about quarterbacks. I get the chance to talk to Eli, Peyton and Mr. Manning. I don’t like to call him “Archie” even though we’ve been friends. He deserves that respect. And all the other quarterback coaches from David Morris who runs “QB Country” and Tony Racioppi who works with TEST Football and trains guys up in New Jersey/New York. We always talk ball and no one has used that analogy. It was something that just kind of popped in my head. I’m like, “Man, how can I get quarterbacks to throw guys open rather than running the out route or an in route?” It popped in my head and it’s been successful.
That’s unbelievable because you can see the difference in Jordan’s play in throwing guys open and hitting guys on the run. It’s the preseason, I get it. But these are NFL-type of plays that he’s going to have to make as a starter.
I guess it’s just repetition but with the eyes and that foot, how did you rewire him?
Calhoun: I told Jordan, “When you stride into your throw, I want your whole left foot to hit the ground flat.” Even though he’s thinking about it? The foot actually doesn’t do it. But it does go toes… ball to the foot… heel down. Like bam-bam-bam, in three rhythmic movements. I’m telling him, “Dude, really exaggerate the foot being flat. Being flat. Being flat.” So we would actually break it down just to warm up, I’d have him — whether he’s at the top of his drop or his last crossover step as he would cross over with his left foot over his right foot — plant the right foot, step flat, pause and then deliver the ball. So there was a pause in-between the throw. So he can really feel how the foot is flat on the ground. Or I would have him start from a stance at the top of the drop and then I would be like, “Stride, stride, flat… pause!” So, it’s all about the body feeling the movement. You can really feel the weight flat on the ground and then push your weight from your back foot, transfer it to the front foot and throw the ball. It’s that breakdown at the top of the drop or starting into your throw to get the muscle memory down. Now, OK, let’s go ahead with a three-step drop and, OK, what’s on your mental checklist? Flat left foot. And if your brain’s telling your body to do it, that’s how you create the muscle memory.
And he got to that point of creating that muscle memory? By the time you sent him back to Matt LaFleur and the Packers, did you see him turn that corner?
Calhoun: I saw him turn the corner — definitely — but it’s a constant thing you have to do. I call them every day drills. How you warm up. If you get out there five minutes early, if you have those few minutes to work on those things that we worked on in the offseason, it’ll keep the muscle memory consistent. It’s just like golf. There are so many moving parts when a quarterback steps and throws a football. It’s just like swinging a golf club. There’s so much room for error—from when you take the club away from the ball to your back swing and try to bring it back on that same plain to hit the ball straight. It’s the same thing with a quarterback striding into his throw, getting the weight to transfer, getting the arm to go back, getting the arm to turn and come back through. It’s a lot of movement. So if you’re not thinking about it, it’s like being on the range. Jordan got more into golf this offseason. He’s still not good at it. But I can use some golf analogies now that he’s out there trying to swing a club and it translates.
Even LeBron couldn’t shoot a jumper early in his career but you work at it through the offseason and it becomes that muscle memory to where we watch him in these preseason games and it just looks a hell of a lot more effortless for Jordan to throw a football. That’s what it is, isn’t it?
Calhoun: It definitely is. The confidence he’s throwing the ball with is different. I saw flashes of it before, but that was pretty dang consistent. When he first got out here this offseason, I said, “OK, we’re going to go through every snap you played last season from the preseason through the game against the Chiefs. He’s in my living room just cringing like, “Ew, look at that!” I said, “We’re going to go through every clip.” This is how you learn. There’s some good stuff and there’s some bad stuff. But it’s the bad stuff where you learn from it and you don’t allow it to happen consistently. It’s going to happen because it’s professional football and there’s guys on the other side of the ball who get paid, too, to disrupt that. But it was a good session. We went through every clip. I’m like, “Dude, look at your feet here.” His feet are pointing down the middle of the field. He’s stepping down the middle of the field but he’s throwing the ball to the right outside of the numbers. I’m like, “Twelve can do that. Twelve can make that throw where his feet are not even pointing that direction. But me and you, we’re human. Twelve is an alien. He can do those things.” He said, “Watching him in practice sometimes, I end up trying some of those things subconsciously. I’m not even thinking about doing it the way Aaron does. But I see him do it and I just end up doing it!” And I’m like, “No, no, no. We’re humans. You can’t do that. You can’t make that throw.”
I always use the analogy: “Hey, you’re at one end of the hallway and your receiver’s at the other end. So you always have to step down the hallway to get that receiver the ball. Everything has to be lined up.”
That’s a visual that makes a lot of sense.
Calhoun: That’s the biggest thing I do with my quarterbacks. Use visual coaching points that they can visually see. Everybody’s been at their parents’ house or their grandma’s house or a friend’s house and you’re at one end of the hallway and you can look down the other end of the hallway and say, “OK, that’s how I visually want you to be able to throw the ball. Your receiver’s at the other end so you have to get everything lined up.”
When did you watch those clips — was it one marathon day?
Calhoun: Absolutely. It was probably 60 plays. I said, “We understand the mistakes we made from last year. Let’s improve them.” So, we created a gameplan: “This is what we’re going to work on,” for example, that flat left foot. Throwing the ball down the hallway. And then talking to him about his eyes to keep your shoulders in front of the receiver so you can always throw guys open.
That Chiefs game, I thought the reaction was overblown. He rallied at the end. You listen to Troy Aikman (calling that game) and you’d think he was the worst quarterback of all-time and you listen to some people in the local media and it was the same echo. How did he handle that game, that loss when it was pretty deafening, the criticism?
Calhoun: That’s how the media is. He understands it. He’s a professional quarterback. They expect you to go out and play exactly how Twelve does and that’s just not realistic. You hear it. I think he uses it as motivation. Like, “OK, I’m going to show you.”
When you got into the offseason, what was your process like? How did you attack it this specific offseason?
Calhoun: We have a blueprint that we follow in the offseason. We add a couple things to it. You don’t add a whole lot because playing the quarterback position is a routine you have to create as far as being balanced and being able to extend your arm towards the target and being able to change the speed on the football to get it over a ‘backer and in front of the safety. We have a blueprint and that’s been the plan ever since I started working with him in high school. So we just add things to it as far as, “OK, we’re putting a new play or new route into the offense. OK, we have to change our footwork to make those adjustments.” We add a little piece at a time. It's a golfer being consistent with the way you set up to the ball, the way you bring the club back, the way you bring it forward, how you finish. That right there never changes.
When did you see him on the calendar?
Calhoun: Early March I would say.
Aaron didn’t drag his decision out all offseason this time. So he knew mentally, “I’m going to be a backup for a third straight year here through the offseason with you.” How is Jordan handling that? As a competitor, nobody wants to sit around as a backup for three years in a row even if he needed some growth.
Calhoun: I don’t think he prepares in the offseason or during the week as, “I’m preparing to be a backup.” He thinks, “I’m preparing for when I get my opportunity to play, I need to be ready.” If you stay ready, you don’t need to get ready. I know that’s his approach. It’s “OK, when I get my opportunity whether it’s preseason or something unfortunate happens to Aaron, I’m going to be ready to step in and lead the team because that’s what they drafted me for.”
Maybe that’s a side of Jordan Love people don’t know or appreciate. He’s a pretty quiet guy at press conferences. That competitor inside isn’t bursting out, but you’ve seen it?
Calhoun: There’s no doubt about it. He wants to be recognized as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. So, he’s working every day towards that. When he gets that opportunity he’ll be able to put that on film and show people, “I’ve been working. I’ve never taken an offseason off or relaxed, like, ‘OK, I made it to the NFL.’” It starts all over. You’re a newborn again. You have to learn how to crawl and learn how to walk. It’s that whole process that he grinds at.
You can see the traits, the reasons why he was drafted in the first round. The athleticism. The big arm. Now that he has addressed some of the problems he’s had — the footwork, his eyes — what makes him different can be the difference.
Calhoun: You can see it. He really looked like a high-level NFL quarterback last week. I don’t care if it’s “Ah, it’s preseason. The starters weren’t in there. They weren’t bringing a lot of exotic blitzes.” You still have to drop back. People are trying to tackle you. And you still have to make the throw. Those are still some of the best players in the world. This is the best league in the world. You still have to do it. You saw some consistent flashes of, “OK, that’s why we chose him in the first round.”
Which play impressed you the most?
Calhoun: Those incompletes, I’m like, “Holy smokes.”
I guess now he’s on Aaron’s time, Green Bay’s time. It seems like you’re tight with the Packers. What’s that relationship like? What’s their belief in Jordan right now?
Calhoun: I don’t have that, “Hey, I’m going to call up Coach LaFleur.” I ran into him at the Combine and said, “Hey, I’m Coach Steve Calhoun.” He said, “OK, it’s good to put the face with the name. I know Jordan works with you in the offseason.” I just asked if there’s anything he sees in practice he wants to address in the offseason, let me know and I’ll send you film of his workouts and you can critique it. We’re all on the same page. We’re all in the boat rowing the same direction. We all want success, not only for Jordan but for the organization.
Aaron Jones is like my nephew. Him and my son are best friends because they played together in college — Aaron and Alvin call me “Uncle Steve” because I was tight with their Dad. And then Rob Tonyan, I’ve known him since college when he was a quarterback at Indiana State. So I’ve been training him since then, even since he came out with Detroit. I know Tyler Davis, the other tight end. I trained him when he came out of college. I’ll talk to Jordan and then I’ll call Aaron, I’ll call Rob, I’ll call Tyler: “What else are you guys seeing?” They all have different perspectives on how Jordan’s doing.
It sounds like it’s been a day-to-day progression through camp.
Calhoun: I’m excited for him. I’m happy that he’s having some success and that he can quiet the noise, at least for one more week. You can only quiet the noise for one week until you play your next game. You throw a bad ball, you throw a pick, and it’s “Ah! He sucks! He should’ve been an undrafted free agent!” So you just re-quiet them week to week to week. I know he’s putting in the work every day.
Look into that crystal ball. You know him and his game and his drive — maybe most importantly — better than anybody. How great can Jordan Love be?
Calhoun: I think his ceiling is really, really high. He can be one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. He doesn’t have any wear and tear on his body. He’s almost in a situation like Aaron where Aaron had to sit behind Brett Favre for a couple of years and now he’s played 13? I see Jordan doing the same thing and having that type of success. The biggest thing about quarterback or any position in the NFL, I think it comes down to live game reps. That’s where you really gain your confidence and really understand how to play the position—through live reps. You can’t simulate that in practice. As hard as coaches try to do it, even myself, I try to create an atmosphere or a game situation out there in the offseason. But you can’t. It’s only through those live reps that you can really start to take your game to the next level.
You learn by doing. You can only sit and watch so much.
Calhoun: That’s it.
Miss a recent Packers feature or Q&A?
'I bring my own juice:' Inside Isaiah McDuffie's linebacker climb
Mailbag, Part 2: Is Green Bay leaving Jordan Love in the dust?
'Sit back and watch:' Why Juwann Winfree believes it's (finally) his time
More on Jordan Love…
The conscious decision to look at different things with different eyes is breaking down what (presumably) great quarterbacks do although I suspect many of them would not even be able to identify that they are doing it. It is but one of many aspects of "the game within the game" and how, at the very top level of any sport or activity, everything is completely different. Golf, competitive eating, Call of Duty ... sure any of us can enjoy / attempt these things, but the true professionals break thing down and see things so differently that it almost is a completely different experience. This is a small window into how different it is.
And Love seems more confident back there. There is a power behind his throws that was lacking and I think that comes from confidence and practice.
One almost has to assume that they extend him when his contract is up, even if Rodgers is still here. I could also see them trading him for draft capital to go get another first round QB and start the process over again. There are a few franchises that are on band-aid QBs, aging stars that are nearer to the end and are not as strong as the were. That would be an ideal landing spot for him should Rodgers actually play another few years.
He still sucks