Jordan Love (and his GM) send a message to the NFL
Wasn't everyone just declaring this quarterback a bust? The Packers' 48-32 win over Dallas was a statement in more ways than one.
Back when the world was declaring Jordan Love a colossal bust, back when fans and media members and a protesting Aaron Rodgers perpetuated this myth in various ways, nobody cared to wonder if the grass was greener on the other side. Doom — and doom only — quite obviously lurked on the dark side of this rainbow.
Worst-case scenarios polluted the air. An ice age to 1968- ’92 proportions was foretold. This site was mocked for suggesting the opposite and quoting those who knew Love best. Remember his go-to guy in college, Siaosi Mariner? “You’re going to get Patrick Mahomes,” the Utah State receiver said in 2020. “But I don’t even want to discredit Jordan. He definitely is his own person. He’s Jordan Love.” Oh, boy. The doomsday preppers didn’t like this one.
But that’s OK. There was one person who imagined exactly what you saw on Sunday and he also happened to be the most important person in charge: Brian Gutekunst. He took his public floggings without flinching. He put up with Rodgers leaking that he’d need his GM fired to return that summer of 2021. He put his career on the line.
Sunday was the magnificent reward for the Green Bay Packers.
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Guts from the GM. Belief in the quarterback’s Mahomesian traits. Patience in quarterback development that’s unheard of elsewhere. And faster than you cry The Packers Should’ve Drafted Tee Higgins, Love is straight-up embarrassing America’s Team in the NFC wild-card round. The best-case scenario for the Packers was never a hallucination. It’s real. It’s always been real and it’s about to get people fired in Jerry’s World. Throughout Green Bay’s stunning 48-32 beatdown, Love wagged his tongue side to side, scanned the field and effectively reached inside the chests of Cowboys fans nationwide to extract their beating hearts. Only a garbage-time drop prevented a perfect passer rating.
Love completed 16 of 21 passes for 272 yards, three touchdowns and no picks.
He’s been on a stone-cold tear for two months.
Afterward, he even offered a rare smile.
“It feels great,” Love said. “That’s really all I can say.”
About 45 minutes later, I received a phone call from someone close to Love who was understandably giddy. Amid the postgame celebration, this person brought up a recent conversation he had with Love. The quarterback told him there’s nothing a defense can deploy that’s confusing him right now. He’s confident he has an answer for every pressure, every coverage.
The tongue-wagging trigger man, in other words, is in an MJ-like zone.
Which hints, again, at why this was always a brilliant draft pick, why this is only the beginning of another stretch of quarterback supremacy and why all NFL front offices should promptly dust off a notepad and take notes on Gutekunst’s brilliant, calculated gamble. He wasn’t blinded by emotion in the present. He envisioned a perfect storm in the future with that 26th overall pick in 2020. Love was always a quarterback who’d do whatever it takes to reach this state of X ‘n O conviction. Work ethic is no cliché at this position. It’s central to ascension. It’s how Josh Allen goes from completing 52.8 percent of his passes in Year 1 to 69.2 percent in Year 3 and how Patrick Mahomes wins a Super Bowl after losing his best weapon, while other outrageously talented quarterbacks (think: Kyler Murray) need homework clauses implemented in their contracts or disappear completely (think: JaMarcus Russell).
No. 1, the Packers knew how Love would respond to waiting.
He became obsessed with the minutiae of the position, right down to simulating plays vs. air with private coach Steve Calhoun in California. All the magic vs. Dallas? He repped those Texas two-steps. Repeatedly. Alone. When nobody believed he was worth a damn. And when the Packers handed Rodgers a $150 million contract? Love didn’t wallow in self-pity and demand a trade. He poured more hours into his personal growth, synchronizing his footwork and improving his accuracy to guarantee the Packers saw a new QB when Rodgers ditched OTAs in 2022.
The Packers handed Love the franchise in 2023 and he made a point to work with his receivers as much as possible. Chose the route of Mahomes, not Rodgers. Whereas the Chiefs quarterback rallied new teammates together in Fort Worth, Texas after losing Tyreek Hill, Rodgers blew off the offseason after losing Davante Adams. Surprise: The difference between the two quarterbacks’ play was striking. Mahomes won a Super Bowl; Rodgers threw receivers under the bus with his pal Pat McAfee.
Ahead of his first training camp as the starter, Love welcomed a slew of teammates out to Santa Ana, Calif.: Aaron Jones, Romeo Doubs, Christian Watson, Jayden Reed, Dontayvion Wicks all joined him for routes on the field and bonding off it. Love knew a round of bowling also goes a long way.
The quarterback with the flat-lined demeanor has always been mentally tough. Back to tragically losing his father. He does not waver, be it a 17-0 fourth-quarter deficit to the New Orleans Saints his first start at Lambeau Field or the immediate loss of his left tackle (David Bakhtiari), No. 1 WR (Watson) and No. 1 RB (Jones) to injuries.
Point is, Love possessed qualities that could not be taught.
Sprinkle in elite physical qualities — big arm, athleticism — and that’s a special potion. Dan Quinn was completely helpless up in the booth.
This draft pick came with all sorts of risk.
What if Love plays too soon and his confidence is stunted?
If Rodgers tries to nuke the franchise, will he succeed?
How much will bypassing a wide receiver hurt the present at expense of the future?
Love’s run should open up the eyes of every front office. To win this time of year, Hall of Famer Kurt Warner is right to say it’s about taking the “layups” consistently. Tom Brady reached 10 Super Bowls because he diabolically detected the weakness in your defense… and attacked. Yet, you still need an element of playmaking, of creating. Defense ramps up. All exotic looks are cut loose on offenses to fluster young quarterbacks. Muddy pockets are a guarantee. That’s why heading into Sunday only seven of 30 quarterbacks making their first playoff start as road underdogs won outright from ‘02 to ‘22.
The quarterback most comfortable in that inevitably muddy pocket wins.
This was another reason to be bullish on Love. It was always dead wrong to stare at collegiate statistics and assume Love sharply regressed from ‘18 to ’19. That final season at Utah State? Love lost four linemen, his starting running back, starting tight end and top three receivers to graduation and injuries. His week-to-week existence was the exact opposite of Tua Tagovailoa 2,000 miles away in Alabama. Whereas Tagovailoa was surrounded by five stars, Love was running for his life. This wasn’t the SEC — and we all view the SEC as the NFL’s de facto minor league — but Love’s 3,402-yard, 20-touchdown, 17-interception final season, in a roundabout way, was a better pro simulation. He was met by a pass rush — immediately. He looked downfield and rarely ever had wide-open receivers. Love didn’t develop bad habits that’d last forever. Instead, this need to slide… and shimmy… and step up… and hop-step… naturally embedded into his play style. Love still had his share of wow moments.
Gutekunst surely knew that watching Rodgers maneuver would help, too.
Now, he's lighting up what most believed was one of the best defenses in the NFL. Love slithered and side-stepped and whistled missiles into the teeth of the Dallas secondary with ease. He threw on the run, flipping his torso around to throw across his body. For my money, he saved his best for last: a fourth-and-2 touchdown to Doubs through a cluster of four white jerseys.
Compare these scenes to the quarterback effectively packed into a freezer at Arrowhead Stadium the night before.
Mike McDaniel unquestionably rejuvenated Tagovailoa’s career, to the extreme of legit MVP consideration in back-to-back seasons. Yet, by December, both seasons devolved into the same frustrating sight. If the call’s correct and the first read is open and the pocket is clean, Tagovailoa will hit Tyreek Hill in-rhythm. He’s that 4x100 track sprinter handing a baton off at full speed. Miami scored the second-most points per game (29.2) with Tagovailoa throwing for more yards (4,624) than anyone in the NFL.
Everything tightens as the season progresses, however. Especially in the playoffs.
Picture-perfect scenery is rare, be it how the 11 defenders are configured or the weather conditions. That’s a big problem for Miami. As Ethan Strauss wrote at House of Strauss over the weekend, you better be able to perform in the cold if you’re an AFC quarterback. Tropical Football is lulling these Dolphins into an inflated sense of dominance. If they’re able to lock up the No. 1 seed, fantastic. They’re golden. They’re at a massive advantage. But here’s the weather the Dolphins must contend with to reach a Super Bowl in the immediate future: Kansas City, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Baltimore.
Now, the Dolphins must decide how much money Tua Tagovailoa is worth. In his same draft class, Joe Burrow ($55 million per season), Justin Herbert ($52 million) and Jalen Hurts ($51 million) signed massive deals and Love’s earning himself millions each game. When a team chooses to enter this pay scale at QB, no longer can you spend as freely as the Dolphins have. The quarterback must now elevate the play of everyone around him.
Is Tua that QB? His play in Miami’s final three losses suggests he is not.
Marc Ross nailed this point. The current NFL Network analyst worked in the front offices of the Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills and New York Giants and made this exact comparison to us during Green Bay’s contentious 2021 offseason.
“Tua was always shooting layups or open 3’s with that offense,” Ross told Go Long then. “He had the blocking. He had open guys. With Jordan, he was always trying to beat guys off the dribble or hit 3’s with people in his face because that team he had around him, the blocking was awful, the receivers were little dudes who couldn’t get open. Every play for him? He had to do it. It was rare, it was 10 percent, when it was just easy for him.”
If Love played for Alabama, Ross believes he would’ve been the Heisman Trophy winner.
When Utah State was pummeled 42-6 to LSU, it wasn’t “Varsity vs. JV.” To Ross, the film was more “Varsity vs. 7th grade.” The quarterback had zero help. Figuring out that Love had it took much deeper scouting and instincts, right down to a late drive against Kent State in the immortal “Tropical Smoothie Café Frisco Bowl.”
“The plays he made in that last drive were like, ‘OK, this is it right here,’” Ross said. “He’s avoiding rush, throwing on the move, rolling out, buying time, looking off second and third read and going to a guy. He’s got movement. He’s got feel. He’s got that, holding the ball in one hand, looking around, juking guys to make the throw. He has that backyard sort of play style, easiness, naturalness with his ability and play style.”
This third and 4 in the Frisco Bowl will look eerily familiar to everything you saw against the Cowboys:
Seventeen interceptions might’ve scared off others. He made mistakes. He was also learning how to push the envelope. Hall of Famer Bill Parcells famously told Phil Simms in the ’84 opener that if he didn’t throw two interceptions he wasn’t taking enough chances. Obviously no coach seeks turnovers, but Parcells wanted his QB to be daring, to take chances that’d actively win the game. Trying to incubate your starter in a protective bubble is always counterproductive. Windows slam shut much faster in January. That final year at Utah State — when Love had zero choice but to take risks — laid a no-fear foundation.
If Love was drilled to take care of the ball to the unhealthy extreme, no way is he making that end-zone throw to Doubs. He scrambles and overthinks and throws the ball way.
Instead, this Packers offense is operating at an elite level of precision.
When Rodgers was winning MVPs, he torched opponents with more of a freelance approach. Plays were called by both Mike McCarthy and Matt LaFleur, but he was at his best scrambling, improvising, relying on those thousands of reps with veteran receivers. Rodgers could audible to plays called two, three, four-plus years prior.
With LaFleur, as Marquez Valdes-Scantling explained: “There are two separate playbooks. There’s the one we get written down. And then there’s one that Aaron has.”
With McCarthy, it was essentially the same. Running back Ryan Grant compared the dynamic on those Packers offenses to mankind’s relationship with artificial intelligence in my ‘19 B/R story: “When you put a quarterback in a position and you talk about how cerebral he is and you give him flexibility to make some changes, guess what? … You develop A.I., because it has the capacity to run without you. And then when it runs without you, it’s like, ‘Wait a minute!’ But in the same breath, if you’re not actually able to stay ahead of it, it’s going to outthink you and it's going to say, ‘Me making the decision is the better decision.’”
The quarterback and the playcaller haven’t been in this lockstep since Brett Favre and Mike Holmgren were truly humming in ‘95, ‘96, ‘97.
Holmgren knew how to maximize his special quarterback. Playcalling aligned beautifully with playmaker. Favre knows he easily could’ve vanished into oblivion. The path was different for Love and LaFleur. This QB waited three years for his shot. The first half of this 2023 season wasn’t always pretty, either. Gutekunst even insinuated himself at midseason that the Packers needed to see progress before committing beyond this year. Nobody seemed to panic. Remember, tight end Luke Musgrave’s effusive praise in Atlanta: “We've got a great quarterback to lead us. I couldn’t ask for a better quarterback. … He doesn’t take anything personal. He’s not somebody who’s not going to not throw you the ball the next play.” Now? Jordan Love is undeniably the hottest QB in the NFL and that’s a big problem for the No. 1-seeded San Francisco 49ers.
His 13 yards per pass attempt vs. Dallas are the most ever for a Packers quarterback in a playoff game.
Love has thrown 21 touchdowns and one interception his last nine games.
And, big picture, Love’s success should drastically alter how teams approach the most important position in sports.
The best time to draft a quarterback is when you do not need one. While the “financial clock” is real — a team benefits by starting a quarterback on a rookie deal — we do not discuss the developmental clock nearly enough. Love had three years to meticulously meld his strengths with LaFleur’s scheme, with Gutekunst’s draft-day finds. Green Bay carefully built a second offense behind Rodgers’ freelancing autonomy. If Rodgers wanted to mock his GM as “Jerry Krause” to teammates behind the scenes to sow division, whatever. Knock yourself out, dude.
The Packers finally traded the QB away after repeated playoff failures, unleashed Love and are now two wins from the Super Bowl.
Gutekunst kept the best interests of the franchise at heart and, now, everyone who harpooned this team and this quarterback for the last three years is drastically changing their tune. The GM was willing to accept all shrapnel with his eye toward this playoff run. Expect a trend. Rather than get caught with their pants down when their aging quarterback retires, we’ll see more contenders draft passers in the first round. The position’s too crucial to be distracted by feelings. It’s OK to piss off your future Hall of Famer.
Ted Thompson did the same exact thing and, hey, he was even drinking buddies with Favre as a scout in the 90s.
The best GMs make the hard choices in the present for euphoria in the future.
That euphoria, in Green Bay, is simply ahead of schedule.
Consider this playoff win the first of many.