Jordan Love shows promise despite being 'dinged' in his Packers debut
GREEN BAY - It was third-and-9 in the first quarter of his first preseason game, and at that point Jordan Love’s right arm remained a mystery.
The Green Bay Packers started slowly with their second-year quarterback making his debut Saturday night against the Houston Texans at Lambeau Field. Coach Matt LaFleur’s menu early was a buffet of checkdowns, short throws designed to help his young passer get comfortable.
But this was third-and-9. Comfort was not an option.
Finally pressed, Love uncorked his first pass downfield. He had tight end Jace Sternberger running open down the right seam, all alone in the Texans secondary. It was the type of throw a professional quarterback should make, an easy layup.
BOX SCORE: Texans 26, Packers 7
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And the type of throw that might expose a young quarterback’s nerves.
Whether Love felt butterflies or not Saturday night, his first snaps since the Packers traded up four spots in the 2020 first round to draft him didn’t show it. Love connected with Sternberger in that right seam for 34 yards, drawing a thunderous cheer from the 72,348 fans in the stands, the most Lambeau Field has hosted since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I felt really confident out there,” Love said. “I felt in charge of the team the whole game. I think me, my personality, I’m a calm person and I’m able to stay out there on the field.
“I felt really confident out here.”
The long completion kick-started Love’s best drive of the night. He went on to connect with Devin Funchess for 8 yards, Malik Taylor for 10 on third-and-4, Funchess again for 15. Kylin Hill, the seventh-round rookie tailback who has positioned himself to be third on the depth chart behind Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon, finished the drive with a 22-yard touchdown on a screen pass from Love.
At that point, the Packers led 7-3. Love was pulled at halftime, completing 12-of-17 passes for 122 yards and a 110.4 rating.
The Packers lost 26-7.
But score was mostly irrelevant Saturday night, and not just because it didn’t count on the record. The Packers preseason opener was all about Love, the heir apparent to three-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers. It had been 479 days since the Packers drafted Love, and 603 since he played his last football game, a 51-41 loss to the Kent State in the Tropical Smoothie Café Frisco Bowl.
“I thought Jordan did a really nice job,” Rodgers told the Packers' television broadcast in the second half. “He was efficient throwing the ball, taking what was there.”
The suspense couldn’t have been much higher. LaFleur even broke from his norm, electing to receive the football after winning the opening coin toss, putting Love on the field immediately.
Given the time off, expectations for Love’s debut shouldn’t have been high. In Rodgers’ preseason debut, against the then-San Diego Chargers way back in 2005, the future Hall of Famer was 2-for-6 passing for 7 yards and a 42.4 rating. A week later, in his second preseason game at Buffalo, Rodgers completed 4 of 9 passes for 21 yards, an interception and a passer rating that matched his jersey number of 12.
In four games, Rodgers’ first preseason ended with 20 of 37 passing for 172 yards, a touchdown, an interception and a 64.25 rating.
Rodgers might have been a rookie, unlike Love. He also didn’t have to deal with any rust from a lengthy, pandemic-induced layoff.
“The key for him, and any young quarterback,” Rodgers said, “is footwork. And I think if you watched the footwork tonight on many of the plays where he threw the ball really efficiently, his feet are underneath him. He was throwing the right hitch, or no hitch, and that’s when quarterbacks hit their rhythm.”
Earlier in the week, LaFleur said he had a feel for what Love might do, having been around his first-round pick for more than a year. But there was no way for LaFleur, or anyone, to know. Nobody had seen Love in action on an NFL field. He was a healthy scratch throughout his entire rookie season, inactive behind Rodgers and primary backup Tim Boyle.
Love showed little to impress in camp a year ago. He mostly looked like a rookie with a virtual offseason, swimming in his first camp. Fitting, because that’s what he was. Love has been less reluctant to cut it loose in his second game, flashing at times in practice.
He exceeded most reasonable expectations Saturday night.
“What we were really looking for,” LaFleur said, “was just going out there with the command, making sure our operation was clean, making sure that he was decisive and on point with his decision making. And I thought by in large it was pretty solid.”
It was not a perfect night for Love.
On his final drop back, backup left tackle Yosh Nijman was beaten on the blindside by Texans pass rusher Jonathan Greenard. Love was on a deep, seven-step drop from shotgun, taking him 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage. LaFleur said the fumble was a combination of Nijman getting beat, but also Love needing to
“We always tell the quarterbacks,” LaFleur said, “if you get beyond nine and a half yards, you’re kind of on your own.”
LaFleur said the plan originally was for Love to play three quarters. However, Love “dinged” his shoulder on the sack. He stayed on the field to close the half, handing off three times to tailback Patrick Taylor. When the team’s medical staff checked him at halftime, Love said his shoulder felt “strain-ish.”
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The sack persuaded LaFleur to alter his plan. Love was pulled at halftime for “precautionary” reasons, the quarterback said. Kurt Benkert, the team’s third quarterback, played through the entire second half. Benkert, who has gotten minimal practice reps in camp, completed 8 of 12 passes for 88 yards, an interception and a 53.5 rating.
Love said he does not expect the injury to affect his preseason.
“I think I’ll be ready to go next week,” Love said of next Saturday's game against the New York Jets.
However, LaFleur said Sunday that the shoulder injury could force Love to miss "a couple" of practices and possibly the Jets game. LaFleur said he and general manager Brian Gutekunst would look at options for improving the team's quarterback depth. The Packers recently released quarterbacks Blake Bortles and Jake Dolegala.
Love showed some rust after his long layoff. LaFleur said he wanted to see his quarterback “let that sucker rip” more often, trusting what he sees on the field. Love had Funchess open on the touchdown drive, but a soft pass over the middle forced Funchess to adjust to the football. Funchess made an acrobatic, diving catch, but was held to 15 yards when he could’ve gotten more.
“I think it’s a byproduct of him not playing for two years,” LaFleur said. “I think it was a good experience to get out there in front of this crowd, and I thought for the most part he did a really nice job.”
Love was also pleased with his debut. He admitted to some nerves Saturday morning, knowing how long the journey had been to finally playing in a game. He allowed himself to soak up the moment as he ran out of the Lambeau Field tunnel for the first time.
It was only one half of one preseason game, but given how long it took to reach this night, it was well worth the wait.
“I think it’s really hard going without playing a live game in that long,” Love said. “I don’t think it felt any different for me going into it. It’s still preparing the same way for the game, but just knowing I hadn’t played in a while and being live, it just adds a little extra, different element to it. But it felt good being out there.”