The Green Bay Packers have a plan (it's genius, too)
When the Packers drafted quarterback Jordan Love, everyone lost their minds. They took AJ Dillon and the hysteria ramped up even more. This master plan, however, just may be brilliant. Here's why.
Whenever there’s a dropped pass, a missed block, a whiffed arm tackle, shots are fired. It’s reflexive at this point.
How could Brian Gutekunst and Matt LaFleur do this?
How could you fail to give your quarterback weapons?
Why are you wasting Aaron Rodgers!
There is screaming. Tears. It’s been this way since April 23.
Nobody could follow the Green Bay Packers’ logic that night. Nobody could figure out why the two men in charge drafted two players at the team’s two greatest positions of strength — quarterback Jordan Love 26th overall and running back AJ Dillon 62nd overall. Rodgers admitted himself he poured four fingers of tequila after finding out Green Bay had drafted his eventual replacement. Locals reacted as if Wisconsin was suddenly declared a dry state. All in sports media universally lampooned the front office for the gall, the unforgivable nerve to do anything their Hall-of-Fame quarterback would not approve of.
Neither rookie, predictably, has provided an immediate boost so nobody, predictably, can make sense of the franchise’s vision any time this offense temporarily buffers, an offense that ranks fourth overall in yards (392.9 per game), first in points (31.7) and third in fewest turnovers (nine). Love won’t be running routes in the slot. Dillon won’t be asked to plug the “B” gap. The closer these Packers inch toward January, the more anxious everyone will likely get.
Yet here’s a thought: This could be brilliant. This should become the blueprint for all NFL franchises.
The Packers are boldly bridging the present with the future, something other teams don’t dare attempt. By identifying a quarterback they loved and grooming that quarterback, the Packers can transition from one era to the next. Smoothly. Without free-falling into purgatory. Look around the division. The Vikings made Kirk Cousins the richest quarterback ever and don’t have a Plan B if the wheels fall off. The Lions passed on Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert for a cornerback who is one of the statistically worst cover corners in the game. The GM and head coach have since been fired. The Bears? In one month, everyone in Chicago might get fired.
No team has navigated the most important position in sports with sharper instincts than Green Bay.
From Ron Wolf. To Ted Thompson. To, now, Gutekunst.
Wolf identified Brett Favre as the answer. Everyone thought he was nuts to pay a price so steep. (Thompson was a scout on that staff.)
Thompson drafted Rodgers. Thompson was chastised. Those Packers were fresh off a 10-6 season in which Favre, a deity, threw for 4,000-plus yards and 30 touchdowns. Didn’t matter. And when, three years later, Favre had a career year, retired and tried taking his job back? Didn’t matter. Thompson, Public Enemy No. 1, stood by Rodgers. (Gutekunst was a scout on that staff.)
Now, Guteknust and LaFleur believe in Love.
Nobody can say with certainty if Love is good yet. But, hey, there’s Love’s No. 1 receiver at Utah State, Siaosi Mariner, declaring the quarterback Patrick Mahomes 2.0.
The Packers nailed this before and there’s a good chance they’ll nail it again. This raw conviction is what elevates a franchise. Too often, teams are terrified to draft a quarterback in the first round with a Canton-bound quarterback on the marquee. Which is why the Dolphins (post-Marino) and Bills (post-Kelly) and Cowboys (post-Aikman) and Broncos (post-Elway) all fall into a Dark Age once their quarterbacks retire. There’s no plan. In the rarest of rare cases, the Colts flip the power switch to Tank Mode and transition from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck.
Too many others, like the Giants, clutch desperately to an Eli Manning two seasons too long.
Because that’s the easy thing to do — let emotions take over. Hang on.
In Green Bay, there are no safe spaces. Whenever it’s time, it’s time. The beauty of this is playing out right now, too — the Packers welcomed the collateral damage with open arms. They knew full well a pissed-off Rodgers is a dangerous Rodgers. Maybe you’ve heard: Slights tend to fuel the QB. The night the Packers picked Love, several ex-teammates said in virtual unison that this would piss Rodgers off more than anybody knows… and that’d be respond with a season exactly like this. It’s no coincidence the Packers are 8-3 and getting the best out of the 37-year-old.
Meanwhile, a team in LaFleur’s vision is soft no more. The ethos of the Packers has completely changed.
This team believes it can now wander into a dark alley brawl of an NFC Championship Game and win.
Tune out the hysteria and you’ll see a franchise building two rosters within one. There’s the core that will win now and the core that will win in the future. You haven’t seen one snap of Jordan Love yet but he’s the kind of leader who won’t be fazed by a Rodgers-sized shadow. You’ve only seen 23 carries from AJ Dillon. But he’s a running back unicorn. You’re worried about that inevitable January demise. But this is a roster full of guys like tight end Jace Sternberger and receiver Allen Lazard who don’t take anyone’s BS.
The equation to win, in Green Bay, is unique.
But it’s working now and it just may work for years.
The QB you never wanted
The best GMs are the emotionally coldest GMs. Warm and fuzzy feelings weaken the senses.
There wasn’t much fuzzy about Thompson.
What a scene it was inside the bowels of the Lambeau Field Atrium July of ‘08. At the annual shareholders meeting, the most hated man in the state was suddenly surrounded by fans. Two brothers who happened to run firetednow.com and BringBrettFavreBack.com approached Ted and asked Ted to sign a petition to bring Favre back. One fan asked Thompson to sign a Favre jersey. He did. One fan said all Rodgers will do is take the Packers to the “Toilet Bowl.”
It was a day that should have broken Thompson.
What did he do? He told those brothers he doesn’t get into politics and with a half-smile, mouth half-agape, putted along.
Favre’s plane landed in Green Bay one week later. Favre then left. For good.
No, Gutekunst and LaFleur didn’t do anything but gush over Aaron Rodgers back when they handpicked his successor in April — gushing that has rightfully never stopped through his 3,100-yard, 33-touchdown season — but it’s not too difficult to follow the logic. Rodgers is the same age, 37, Favre was when he was drafted. And Rodgers, prone to take a shot or two every game has suffered more injuries than his Canton-bound contemporaries Tom Brady and Drew Brees. There’s no guarantee he, too, can sustain his dominance into his 40s. You never know when the fade’s coming.
The two running the show now are certainly A-OK with Rodgers having a career year with his heir apparent on the sideline.
Whenever it is time to transition — 2021? 2022? 2023? — neither will flinch.
When it is time, Love will be ready.
No doubt, another weapon like Tee Higgins or Chase Claypool would help a ton more in the now. But if the Packers are right? If Love pans out? Nobody will remember, nor care. Just like nobody remembers Thompson passing on DB’s Marlin Jackson and Brodney Pool in ‘05. How a front office navigates this position is a million times more important anything else. Gambling on a quarterback you believe in is always worth the potential payoff. If Love is everything Guteknust and LaFleur hope he is? They’ll forever be Packers royalty and the Packers could quite literally live a half-century in quarterback bliss.
So, the obvious question on everyone’s mind is if Love is, uh, good.
Two who know him best have zero doubt: Love is special.
Siaosi Mariner was Love’s leading receiver in 2019. His locker was right next to his. He eases into his projection, calling Love “goofy” and “funny” and praises his chiller-than-chill demeanor. Then, Mariner drops this bomb of a comparison.
“You’re going to get Patrick Mahomes,” Mariner says. “But I don’t even want to discredit Jordan. He definitely is his own person. He’s Jordan Love. There’s just a different thing about him. He has that swagger about him. When he walks into the building, you just kind of know, ‘OK…’ He definitely passes the eyeball test. And then when you see him do it, it’s an ‘I told you so’ thing. He looks the part. He makes everything look effortless. Everything’s so smooth with him.”
I give him a chance to cool that comparison. He goes all-in a second time.
“The things Patrick Mahomes is doing, he can do as well,” Mariner says. “I don’t even want to put a cap on him. Patrick Mahomes is a great player but this is Jordan Love. He plays like Jordan Love and he does a lot of Patrick Mahomes-like things. The off-schedule throws are becoming more and more of a trend. It’s something he’s been doing. While Patrick Mahomes was doing it, he was doing it.”
For all we know the Packers may, quietly, agree. They did their homework.
Ex-Utah State offensive coordinator David Yost estimates he talked to six or seven teams pre-draft, but only one head coach: LaFleur. One of Yost’s former student assistants at Missouri who even lived at his home for two years, Darryl Franklin, is now on the Packers’ scouting staff and connected the two. LaFleur wanted to know what made Love tick so there were many conversations just like this one.
First, Yost told LaFleur that Love had complete control of his offense. Even though the game film might’ve made it seem like Love was a robot in ’18 — when Love completed 64 percent of his passes for 3,567 yards, 32 touchdowns and six picks — Yost made it clear that Love had the freedom to change plays at the line. Love always had multiple options off whatever plays were sent it. Yost was more so suggesting plays and Love used his brain. At the college level, nowadays, that’s rare.
When LaFleur asked Yost if it’s any different than sending a play into Rodgers, he told the coach it’s likely very similar.
Yost praised Love’s aggressive nature to LaFleur, the fact that Love is a quarterback who pushes… and pushes… and pushes himself closer to the proverbial edge of the cliff. He doesn’t play terrified, miles away from that cliff. Rather, he plays with controlled abandon. Purposeful improvisation. And Love, no doubt, is at his best throwing “on time” in the rhythm of the offense, Yost adds, with “an attack mentality.”
The worst time to go quarterback hunting is when you do not have one. Whenever lines cross — Love is ready and Rodgers is fading — Green Bay wants to be ready.
So in that convo, above all, LaFleur needed to learn what the film does not reveal.
How do people react to him?
How does the trainer react?
How do teammates react when they walk by him? Do they talk to him? Do they say hello?
Is he the guy who can lead your organization?
“And that’s when I said, ‘No question. He is a player’s guy,’” Yost says. “He fits right in with those guys. At Utah State, his best friends were the receivers and running backs on offense. He had a great rapport with his offensive linemen and the tight ends and that. And I told him there were defensive guys he hung out with, too. He fits in with the team. He’s not always talking. He’s not a rah-rah guy. He’s not fake. The players won’t ever think he’s just saying it to say it. When he talks, they listen.”
Yost loves pointing to a 38-35 loss to Air Force in ’17 when Love finished with 284 yards and two scores, when Love was phenomenal. His receivers? Far from it. They dropped more passes than Yost has ever seen in a football game. “Nine or 10,” he estimates. His O-Line? It wasn’t great, either. Love was smeared on a sack-fumble after one of his guards missed a block. Yet afterward, Love was down on himself only. He couldn’t get over the two or three throws he missed.
Such were the details LaFleur desired — how Love is wired, how Love elevated from the depths of the QB depth chart to pilot an offense that scored the second-most points in the nation (47.5) in ’18. Love was not incubated and coddled through quarterback camps his entire life. Yost believes the fact he played other team sports in high school made him a better leader. Like Mahomes. When you’re not necessarily the best player on the basketball team, he notes, that humbles you.
Love is (very) selfless. Love is also (very) assertive. You’re drawn to him. Dillon realized this very early, pre-draft, training with Love.
“He’s definitely a leader. And this is not just me trying to hype him up,” says Dillon. “He has a presence in the room. He is somebody that won’t be hard to follow.
“I’m not somebody who’s starstruck or in awe. But he just speaks and, when he does, he demands a presence in a room. I remember one time we were in the weight room and he said, ‘Alright, let’s get to work. Let’s grind. Let’s get better today.’ People say that every day and it’s no big deal but everybody’s eyes — from their individual conversations — were now glued on him. We locked in and we had a great workout. That’s definitely something you want in your quarterback, your leader, a leader of any position group.”
This was the norm at Utah State, too.
The best way Mariner can put it is that you’d have no clue on campus that Jordan Love was the starting quarterback. He treats everyone the same, devoid of any airs. Mariner also believes Love losing his father at such a young age forced him to mature at a much faster rate than his peers. (Orbin Love, the one who inspired him to play QB, took his own life when Jordan was 14.)
Says Mariner, “I felt like as bad as that was, something like that helped mold him. For him to still be standing strong — in the position he’s in — it’s a testament to his heart, his hard work and what he was willing to do for his father’s passing. He kept his father’s dream alive.”
Love can play, too.
Love was a natural for Yost’s up-tempo, spread-shotgun offense. There was one three-week stretch in which the defense never touched the ball, Yost says, with Love still gunning difficult throws downfield. So many quarterbacks can throw the ball when the defense isn’t expecting it. But, he asks, “Can you throw it when you have to throw it?” Third and 9. Fourth quarter. Down three. Love can. Love made those plays with conviction. A play-caller is hoping that about 80 percent of whatever he sends in will work, Yost says. The other 20 percent? You need your QB to be “the eraser,” to make that pass rusher screaming off the edge miss.
Don’t base opinions off training camp tweets. Rodgers was abysmal his first summer.
Yost believes, in time, Love will be an elite NFL QB.
“He has what it takes above the shoulders to get to that point,” Yost says, “and then he has the skillset. There aren’t a lot of guys who can throw the ball the way he does, with the accuracy, the ball placement and make those types of throws from different throwing angles on different platforms. He has that. But he has above the shoulders what it takes — and that’s where I don’t know if he’s gotten enough credit. That’s what will take him from an OK NFL quarterback to a really good NFL quarterback to being a great NFL quarterback.”
To Mariner, Love is just so damn smooth. (“He just has it. You can see it!”) The whole state of Utah knew he was the man when he stepped on the field. And when told everyone will call him crazy for the Mahomes comp, when given a third chance to cool his jets, Mariner doesn’t back down. He sees this is a perfect situation, too. The Packers did this before, he notes, and the Packers will do it again.
Nobody else even attempts this. Every April, teams blather on about wanting their rookie quarterback to sit and learn and wait and, inevitably, insert that rookie into the lineup the second they can. The other first-rounders in Love’s class — Joe Burrow, Tagovailoa and Herbert — are all reinvigorating their franchises with hope. Since 2001, there have been 44 quarterbacks drafted in the first round. Of those, 33 have played by their 10th professional game. Only two lasted past their 30th. Philip Rivers, stuck behind Drew Brees in San Diego, made his starting debut in Game No. 33. Rodgers? He had to wait until Game No. 49. (h/t to @AlbertBreer for keeping score)
Now, Love waits.
Yost fully expects Love to be the best student imaginable while, always, keeping his eyes on the prize: the No. 1 job.
Plus, there’s that convenient little side effect to drafting a quarterback when you don’t need one. The quarterback in Green Bay, famously sensitive, always plays his best when he can conjure a slight. And this 2020 season didn’t take much conjuring. No doubt, Guteknust knows you can win now and win later. This was never an either-or situation. He lived it. In 2007, the Packers were one errant overtime pass away from playing the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl. Favre, too, was in an MVP conversation that season.
Yost takes this all back to the beginning. To 1992. Yost remembers thinking the Packers were just fine at quarterback with Don Majkowski because the “Majik Man” was actually his quarterback in fantasy football. Majkowski tore a ligament in his ankle. Favre came in. Favre started 275 straight games. The summer of ’08 was ugly, sure, but now everybody’s singing kumbaya and Rodgers is even on “Favrey” terms with the guy who used to snub him.
This will be Love’s show. At some point.
“When it’s his time, his turn, he’ll be the guy,” Yost says. “You’ll be excited he’s leading your organization.”
It’s not time yet.
It’s not time for the running back Green Bay drafted, either, but he’ll be ready too.
The best RB nobody’s seen yet
The Packers have had large running backs before. Very large, in fact.
You probably remember one specifically: Eddie Lacy.
Before his rookie year, the two of us actually met up at Republic Chophouse in downtown Green Bay for a feature story at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the conversation was illuminating. Lacy was kind and honest and polished off a 16-ounce boneless ribeye doused in A1 sauce with a full plate of scallops like a champ. All along, he admitted that while football was fun it did not make him truly happy inside. There was a void. An emptiness. And the reason for that emptiness, he explained, was Hurricane Katrina. The storm wrecked his childhood.
That night, Lacy wasn’t so sure he’d be able to ever recapture that happiness, either.
He won NFL offensive rookie of the year in 2013 and helped steer the Packers to the NFC title game in 2014.
And suddenly, he was done. He essentially ate his way out of the NFL, later opening up about his weight problems to ESPN. At his best, Lacy was impossible to tackle. The perfect player at the perfect time. But, clearly, he was never someone who’d eat, sleep, breathe this sport. The public would be shocked to learn how many players are very good at football but don’t necessarily love football. In time, Lacy seemed to fit that mold. It was impossible to forget that conversation, that moment of vulnerability. Whether it was the Katrina trauma, an eating problem or some combination of the two, you cannot help but wonder how special Eddie Lacy could’ve been if his rugged running style was fueled by a genuine love to the game.
If Lacy transfers that fat into muscle, he’d still be leaving a pile of bodies in his shadow.
He was that good.
AJ Dillon can be that good, too.
Right here, is a player with a realistic shot to be what Lacy never was. To finish the job Lacy started and make this a franchise that gives linebackers nausea just seeing “Green Bay” on the schedule. He knew fans were apoplectic when Green Bay took him. (“I saw the ‘Why not a receiver?’ comments,” he recalls). But Dillon also knew, all along, that there just aren’t backs built like him. His 247 pounds are different than any other back’s 247 pounds.
People see the weight, he explains, and think he’s some “slow, big, 1960s running back” when that could not be further from the truth.
There hasn’t been much of a need for Dillon. Yet. He’s basically the “Mountain,” in Thrones, patiently biding his time in a dungeon somewhere.
The numbers don’t make sense. Dillon ran a 4.53 in the 40 at the Combine, benched 225 pounds 23 times while jumping 41” in the vertical and 10’11” in the broad. His body fat was 7.8 percent. Repeat that back to him — “7.8!?” — and Dillon swears it’s true. He was an absolute workhorse at Boston College, ramming through defenses for 4,382 yards on 845 attempts (5.2 avg.) with 38 touchdowns. He could tell people were still “unsure” about him last spring — it’s not like BC was on national television every week — but Dillon knows the work he puts in. His body type is no mistake.
He pulls sleds. He tilts the treadmill to an incline that’d flip the rest of us onto our backsides. He benches and squats and deadlifts over and over and his favorite muscle to tone? His core. Everything starts there, he says. Indeed, this isn’t another Lacy. His 247 isn’t Lacy’s 247.
“That’s the biggest thing I want people to know!” says Dillon. “You can put my numbers against whoever you want to put my numbers against at the Combine and I did well. Derrick Henry, I’m pretty sure I beat him at all things in the Combine.”
That’s quite another name drop. And he is correct.
Henry, who we all now consider a WWE heavyweight dropped into a Pop Warner game, ran a 4.54, benched 22 reps, had a vertical of 37” with a broad of 10’10.”
Of course, LaFleur also coached Henry in Tennessee. With this pick, he was unquestionably looking to infuse the Packers with a similar hammer. To date, he’s been buried on the depth chart. Aaron Jones is still the man here but Jones is also a free agent in the spring and, in today’s NFL, you absolutely cannot count on one back alone saving you.
Especially in January. Especially when the Packers typically shrivel up and die.
These Packers would like to be the team delivering — not receiving — the bruises. Dillon is on the COVID-19 list. Dillon has been mostly a non-event as the No. 3 back. But Dillon, 22, could be that force of nature that helps reverse history for good this postseason and beyond. We saw what this brand of back can do last winter. Henry threw the Titans on his back with eight straight games of 100-plus yards. Asked if he can be the next Derrick Henry, Dillon says he’ll be “the next AJ Dillon” and “the one and only AJ Dillon” but admits he looks at Henry and sees a “similar” build, a “similar” running style and, no doubt, believes he can ram through NFL defenses too. He insists he’s more than just a big back to bring in on third and 1.
So why haven’t we seen such specimens much at all through history? Big and fast and athletic running backs like him don’t make it to this level.
He explains, in detail.
“It’s so uncommon, that people get nervous about it,” Dillon says. “They get scared and try to figure out everything wrong with a guy my size. So you hear all the knocks: ‘Well, he has tread on his tires. Well, he’s not as fast. Well, he doesn’t catch the ball so much.’ You have to play to your strengths. Not everybody has this size and speed so, yeah, they’re going to hand off the ball more because defenses aren’t used to tackling it. It’s not easy to be 250 and be able to run and jump and be athletic and stay in good health and be an explosive player and a game-changer. … I didn’t just wake up and was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m super strong.’ A lot of work went into staying in shape. Do you know how hard it is to carry these legs around? I could probably feed a family of five with one of my thighs.”
Case in point: Dillon worked out all three days of the draft. He didn’t celebrate. He stayed hungry.
“Not everybody has that determination,” he continues. “But then you look at guys like Derrick Henry and — once again, I hate comparing myself to anybody — but somebody who, if you’re looking at numbers, it’s comparable. And you see what he’s done. I can’t imagine him just waking up and he was like that. I’m sure it was hours and hours and hours of work people can’t even imagine because it’s just different.”
Dillon has always known how to control and use his weight for good.
He remembers not eating for two days and running around in a garbage bag before Pop Warner weigh-ins which he’s pretty sure is illegal now. The one time he didn’t make weight at running back, he played tight end and his coaches comically fed him the ball on tight end reverses all game. Into high school, then college, now the pros, he’s always been larger than his peers. Yet he’s disciplined. He eats healthy. He says that if a nutritionist told him he had to eat spinach the rest of his life — “and that, by the way, is not a good diet” — he’d be able to.
Says Dillon: “That’s just the mindset I have. Wherever I can get better, I try to do that.”
His bruising running style is an extension of Mom, who had him at 20 years old and worked three… four… five jobs at a time to support the family. She was a sixth-grade teacher then, waitressed at two different restaurants and also did after-school care. His style is also a product of where he’s from: New London, Conn. Dillon has his area code — “860” — tatted on one arm like a badge of armor. He wants to be an inspiration.
No, Dillon will not be put in that big-back box on the field. His favorite collision at BC is when he shucked Louisville’s Chucky Williams off him and ran 75 yards to the house but then he’s quick to cite back-to-back spin moves against Louisville. (“It’s not just running over people,” he says.) Dillon cannot be put in a box off the field, either. When he’s not lifting weights, he’s into photography, cracks Dad jokes and enjoys, of all things, origami. When Dillon was in fifth grade he read “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes” and has been into the art of folding paper since.
The world will discover AJ Dillon soon enough. He is staying patient.
His time is coming.
Right now? All fans care about is winning a Super Bowl with Rodgers, arguably the best wide receiver in football (Davante Adams), a top-5 running back (Jones), the best left tackle in football (David Bakhtiari) and with, most importantly, a completely new attitude.
‘Ten Toes Down’
When a trip to the Super Bowl is on the line, the Packers tend to wilt away.
They blow a 19-7 lead to Seattle with five minutes left. They’re embarrassed by the Falcons, 44-21, and it isn’t that close. They’re shoved into the incinerator by the 49ers, 37-20, and (again) it isn’t that close. For all the hand-wringing over a perceived inferior “supporting cast,” Rodgers is more T.J. Rubley than future Hall-of-Famer in the NFC Championship with a record of 1-3, more picks (seven) than touchdowns (six) and a passer rating of 77.96 that’s actually boosted by garbage time.
One theme seems to prevail. The Packers are exposed as, frankly, soft. They’re bullied. They’re ejected into the off-season with a black eye.
Here’s the good news: Those days are over.
Look closely and you would’ve detected a flicker of hope last winter against Seattle in the divisional round. Tight end Jace Sternberger remembers the night well. His position coach always encourages guys to be pests, to get under opponents’ skin and, no, that’s never been a problem for Sternberger. He calls himself a natural “shit-talker.”
It’s a magnetic pull, really. He always needs to take on the biggest, baddest dude.
Thus, a clash with Jadeveon Clowney was inevitable.
As soon as the game began, Sternberger went to cut block the ex-Seahawks end and Clowney miraculously avoided it with what Sternberger calls a “full Avatar” maneuver. And that’s when the tight end, ahem, reacted with an “innocent” leg whip.
Clowney wasn’t happy. Clowney got right into his face.
“He’s like ‘Rah, rah, rah, do that shit again and I’m going to F you up!’” Sternberger says. “Once it happens, you can’t back down. So, I’ll do this shit with Clowney. And I’m thinking, ‘F---. This dude? This is who I have to do this with? Are you serious? This is how I have to prove to everybody I’m not a (wussy)? Are you kidding me? This is who it’s against?’ So the whole game, here we are. Every time I’m blocking him, I’m bumping him and making sure my hand is on his hip. Touching his ribs. Just being a little pest. He keeps telling me how bad I suck and how I shouldn’t be out there.
“So I catch a pass and he’s coming to tackle me and I just hit the brakes and his whole body… his eight-foot arm just yanks the shit out of my helmet. Facemask and everything. I get up and say something like, ‘If I suck, you’re f------ trash.’ Then, I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God. I could die at any moment right now.’ If he really wanted to strike me, I’d probably get hurt.”
Which is when Bakhtiari stepped in to kindly remind Sternberger that it’s only the second quarter.
The next play, Sternberger gave Clowney another friendly bump and Clowney, he says, threatened to hurt him. Whatever. Sternberger didn’t care. He got right into Clowney’s face and told this 6-foot-5, 255-pound former No. 1 overall pick that he is “Ten toes down.” Clowney asked what the hell that meant and Sternberger spelled it out: “I’m not scared of you.”
Says Sternberger, “I love pissing people off. I just love doing better when they’re mad at me.”
He’s not alone, either. Did the Packers make a flashy trade at the deadline? No. They opted not to sign the receiver who was then suspended six games for PEDs. This roster already has enough talent around the QB. More importantly, it has hostility. As strong of a GM as Thompson was, he too often chose the choirboy over the player with a snarl. From Za’Darius Smith (who has nine sacks and 24 QB pressures and three forced fumbles in 11 games) and Jaire Alexander (one of the league’s top shutdown corner) on defense to Allen Lazard (snubbed his entire football life) and Sternberger on offense, this Packers team just plays nastier than Packers teams past.
When teams punch, they plan to punch back.
Sternberger isn’t scared — of anything — for good reason, too.
For starters, he says Oklahomans are “naturally tough” and one moment forever shaped him. One moment is the reason he attacks every second of every day with such raw passion. Sternberger was only 14 years old when his best friend, Alfonso Reynaga, at age 13, died from a brain tumor. He was just a kid listening to another kid talk about being “OK with dying,” which forced him to view life itself through a totally different lens.
Sternberger learned, instantly, to live with “more intent.”
He still remembers every detail. He has never cried that hard since.
“Emotionally,” he says, “it really molded me.”
They met by chance. After Alfonso spilled milk on his shirt at school, Jace’s Mom (an eighth-grade teacher) brought him to the office where Jace was helping out as an aide. Jace hooked him up with a shirt and, suddenly, they were eating lunch together every day. They were inseparable. Most all in school knew about Alfonso’s cancer diagnosis. Jace included. But the two never talked about it, instead having the time of their lives for their six months together. They played video games, watched movies, hung out all the time.
As Alfonso’s condition worsened, the closer they became.
Sternberger saw Alfonso go from walking to “wobbling” to a wheelchair. He’d push him around in that wheelchair and lift him up by the armpits just so he could use the bathroom — he helped his friend cling to as much normalcy as possible. Pneumonia set in. A tube prevented Alfonso from speaking. And with his chest and nose all congested, Sternberger says, Alfonso passed away.
He still remembers setting up the memorial service with the family. A video played over and over and over and Sternberger couldn’t leave their side. He stayed with the family for 10 to 12 hours because their pain was his pain. He took Alfonso’s final words — “Take care of my brothers” — to heart. He delivered a eulogy that, to Sternberger, was “life-changing” and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Countless parents messaged him afterward. Into college, Sternberger had his arm tatted in Alfonso’s honor. There’s a stairway to heaven with Alfonso’s name, birth date and the day he died. And there’s a lion because Alfonso had the heart of a lion.
So, bring on Clowney.
Bring on anyone.
“It helps me through any time there’s a big-time moment,” Sternberger says. “I’m thinking, ‘You’ve seen some shit. You’ve had to do some shit that no one else has done. You’re different. This is what makes you who you are. This is why you can handle these situations.’ That’s why I’m so calm and cool. I know Alfonso’s with me every game.”
He has endured more heartbreak since. He has lost grandparents, aunts, uncles. And just this summer, Sternberger lost his position coach at JUCO Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, Gerald Howse. Sternberger never had a clue — few did — but Howse had an enlarged heart. He passed away in his living room at 28 years old.
This shook Sternberger, too. His voice cracks.
He thinks of how helpless Howse must’ve been, alone, in his home. No one was there to help him.
He holds onto these memories of everyone lost.
They all make Sternberger appreciate every snap in Green Bay, all make him the anonymous fighter Green Bay needs.
Oh, Sternberger heard the fans last offseason. And Sternberger knew, all along, there was “unseen talent” in house.
Sternberger knew this team was jam-packed with fighters who’ll challenge the Clowneys of the world to a duel. The calls for more weapons began the second Green Bay lost in Santa Clara last year and never really let up. Even Rodgers himself said that while watching the first round of the draft he was thinking of which wide receivers would be available.
The group around the QB now may not grace an SI cover like that group in 2011, but they’ve got an edge.
Robert Tonyan, undrafted and released by the Lions, catches virtually everything thrown his way. All he’s done is haul in 37 of the 42 of his targets for a catch rate of 88.1 percent that ranks No. 1 in the entire league for players with at least 30 targets. Against the Falcons alone, he caught three touchdowns.
Marquez Valdes-Scantling isn’t iced out of the offense anymore. After he dropped one third-down pass at San Francisco, he caught one 52-yard touchdown and another one-yard score. After a costly fumble in Indianapolis — one that sparked death threats — everyone had his back.
Jamaal Williams could start on other teams. Here, he’s the No. 2 back. Here, he steps in with 114 total yards, one touchdown and a packed-stadium’s worth of emotion when Jones is out at Houston. His catch rate (87.1 percent) ranks second in the NFL. (Williams has a wild back story, too.)
Lazard sure looked like a legit No. 2 torching the Saints for 146 yards and a score. Lazard is the reason the Packers could draft Love instead of, say, Claypool. He proved he’s tough as nails, too, in surviving this cannon blast to the chest. Back from his core muscle surgery (and, soon, that collision vs. Chicago), he is a LaFleur dream. All players repeat that LaFleur genuinely does not care whether you were a first-round pick or went undrafted.
He covets toughness. That’s Lazard.
Lazard heard all the “They should’ve drafted a receiver!” cries, too. How could he escape it? It was all “more fuel to the fire.” It’s what he’s used to. He’s been disrespected back to Iowa State, where he had seven QBs in four years. Back to the 2018 draft when the league deemed 256 players better than he. Back to the Jacksonville Jaguars’ practice squad, where he knew one drop, one mistake reading the play cards, one minuscule error of any sort could get him cut.
The pressure was heavy. Daily.
“At any given moment,” Lazard says, “I could be out of a job.”
He watched vets like Calais Campbell, Brandon Linder, Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack extremely closely. How they practiced. Their relentlessness. And that’s how he attacked the pressure each day. That eventually got him to Green Bay and right into the lineup. Now, he never fears failure. Even in this unbelievably-detailed offense.
What makes LaFleur’s scheme unique, he explains, is that everything looks the same for “a solid second or a half” after the snap. The Packers could be running eight different plays out of what you see in those 1 ½ seconds — LaFleur’s disguises keep all 11 defenders guessing. There’s no way a cornerback can tell what Lazard is doing because Lazard prides himself on his “strike step” five strides into a route. He could break in, break out, stop, go deep. He wants the corner questioning where he’s going every time. He tries to be as “fluent” and “indistinguishable” as possible.
The margin for error is small.
Especially with this quarterback.
“He’s very demanding,” Lazard says, “but, for me, when I first got to Green Bay — to earn his respect and his trust — I felt like if I made my standard higher than what his was that even if I didn’t reach my standard, I’d be at a decent level. So, I hold myself personally to a high level and try to push myself every single day that, at the end of the day, I don’t really care what other people think or other people say.”
Sternberger calls playing with Rodgers the “game within the game.” More of a challenge than anything. All young receivers have been trying to prove to him that they don’t need “six years” to build a great chemistry.
“I can do this now,” Sternberger says. “It’s really more of a challenge within itself.”
This is now an offense that can impose its will. If those NFC title losses taught the Packers anything, it’s that they’ll need to bring a different level of physicality to the ground game and they’ve been able to run the ball on-demand all season with Jones, with Williams and, soon, with Dillon. The plan now is to command the tempo of that NFC title game. They couldn’t before.
If people are still sleeping on anyone around No. 12? That’s on them.
“I like riding under the wave so when you pop up and you’re there, people have no excuses,” Sternberger says. “They can’t go ‘uh, uh, uh, uh,’ No. You said what you said. Just swallow your pride and move on. You can still be a fan. You can still cheer for the Packers. But there’s a reason we all trusted it.”
Trust was all Greg Jennings was asking for two years back. I know, I know. Rodgers called his former No. 1 wide receiver “irrelevant” after this Bleacher Report story published but it was Jennings who said Aaron Rodgers could be part of the “solution.” Jennings was excited about LaFleur’s offense, too, if the quarterback bought in. Now, it’s clear the whole operation in Green Bay was, in fact, staler than stale under Mike McCarthy and bottomed out.
With McCarthy gone and LaFleur in, the quarterback is clearly rejuvenated.
Particularly, now, with a certain 22-year-old quarterback in his shadow.
The Packers have a team capable of winning the championship in 2020, but the genius of this all is they also have a team that could compete for years.
Thread that needle and, hey, it’ll be another 10 to 15 years before people are losing their minds again.