For one quarter, Jordan Love showed glimpses of why Packers thought he could be the future quarterback

Ryan Wood
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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PHILADELPHIA – He locked himself in the film room after last season. Back to the lab again. The pit in his gut, the urgency as he sensed his NFL future slipping away, led him there.

What Jordan Love put on film last fall, he knew, was not good enough. He was battered and confused in his first NFL start at Kansas City. He needed to start from scratch, rebuild his game.

“After especially the Chiefs game,” Love said, “that was my mindset. I was like, ‘Well, I’ve got to improve on that.’ So in the offseason, I really watched it.”

Then he waited. Life is hell for a backup quarterback, the gnawing uncertainty, the helpless desire to play. Love finally got his chance in the fourth quarter Sunday night against the Philadelphia Eagles, 12 games into this miserable Green Bay Packers season.

When Aaron Rodgers exited at the end of the third quarter for the locker room, he looked like a quarterback intent on returning. He jogged through the tunnel after completing 11-of-16 passes for 140 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in a 40-33 loss, but he didn’t throw another pass the rest of the night. A rib injury not only ended his game, but potentially his season.

On the sideline, Love knew Rodgers was “in pain.” Rodgers took a shot to the ribs and landed hard on his side in the second quarter. He took another shot to his ribs in the third. This was a quarterback, broken thumb on his throwing hand, painful ribs, turning 39 years old Friday, who wasn’t returning.

“In my mind,” Love said, “it’s just go make the most of it. Opportunities like this don’t come around too often, and you’ve just got to go make the most of it.”

Green Bay Packers quarterback Jordan Love throws during the fourth quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles.

After a few warmup throws on the sideline, Love did that. He entered the field with 11 minutes, 11 seconds left in the fourth quarter a different quarterback, unrecognizable from last season, the work he put into the lab showing.

The Packers hadn’t converted any of their five third-down attempts with Rodgers. Their first of the night came on a 7-yard pass to receiver Allen Lazard. Love was decisive in the pocket, quick to release the football on a shallow out route to the right. It was a sign of things to come.

Love’s poise on the field was the opposite of his debut last season, when he couldn’t even make the easy plays against a Chiefs defense that blitzed him relentlessly. One play after his completion to Lazard, Love surveyed the Eagles defense from a clean pocket and found rookie Christian Watson crossing the field wide open. His pass hit Watson in stride, allowing the receiver who runs a 4.3 40 to never slow down as he raced past two Eagles defenders for a 63-yard touchdown, cutting the Packers’ deficit to 37-30.

“It was perfect,” Watson said of the throw. “Obviously, me wanting to utilize my speed, and then obviously him thinking about that when he’s throwing the ball, I think it was a perfect pass. Perfect opportunity for me to catch it on the run and get some (yards after catch).”

The touchdown was what Love remembered as his favorite play of the night, a lightning-quick strike the Packers desperately needed to have any chance. Subtly, there were plenty more highlights. Love’s best throw was a laser to running back Aaron Jones down the right sideline, a back-shoulder throw with enough zip to beat an approaching safety. Jones dropped the pass, though he caught a 23-yard touchdown from Rodgers after getting open in the end zone earlier.

Love finished 6-of-9 for 113 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 146.8 passer rating, easily the best stat line of his career.

Packers quarterback Jordan Love celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass to Christian Watson.

It’s hard to determine in which area of his game Love showed more growth, because the difference was extreme. Rodgers, who said he was proud of Love afterward, credited longtime quarterbacks coach Tom Clements for cleaning up Love’s fundamentals. The development was obvious with how much quicker Love diagnosed plays.

“Tom was huge for me in my early years,” Rodgers said, “of helping me hone the fundamentals. The drills we work on in practice always translate to game play, and I feel like he’s become much better in timing up his drops with the routes. When you do that, it allows everything to kind of flow smoothly from there. The accuracy improves and the decision making is easier because you’re just playing on time all the time.”

The real test for Love is yet to come. Protecting a lead, the Eagles played a soft, two-shell defense with both safeties deep. They did not blitz, determined to keep every play in front of them. At least when Watson wasn’t running past them.

This was not Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnola throwing a laundry list of intricate blitzes at him almost every play.

Love knows that’s yet to come. He’s thought about it since he locked himself in the film room, understanding defensive coordinators designing game plans to stop him are going to blitz until he shows he can handle it.

“Those all-out kind of looks,” Love said, “I know those are coming in the future after defenses see that. So I have to be able to have an answer ready for that and make defenses pay.”

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If this was a glimpse of the future, Love may have given the Packers reason to hope. A franchise-altering decision looms after this miserable season ends. General manager Brian Gutekunst will need to decide which direction to go from here: stick with Aaron Rodgers in the twilight of his career, or rebuild around his former first-round draft pick quarterback.

Love played like a passer drafted that high Sunday night. He’s always shown a talented arm and athleticism to befit the 26th overall pick in the 2020 draft, but playing quarterback is so much about the intangibles. Matching talent and the wits necessary to carve NFL defenses is a challenge very few ever master.

For one quarter, Love finally showed he’s capable of doing it.

“I’m not shocked, to be honest with you,” coach Matt LaFleur said, “that he went out there and played well and showed great poise. We see it on a daily basis in practice. I know people might not necessarily agree with that, but I see it every day. I think he’s a guy that has continued to get better and better every day in practice, and does such a great job against our defense, giving them fits and giving them tough looks.”

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