Brian Gutekunst believes Jordan Love is ready to be the Packers' starting quarterback but he won't tip hand on future
GREEN BAY – With four games left after the Green Bay Packers return from their bye, general manager Brian Gutekunst was not going to disturb the season when he stepped to the podium Monday afternoon.
More than once, the GM referred to “offseason decisions” awaiting him. Wherever this season ends, the Packers will arrive at a formative spring. At quarterback. At left tackle. At defensive coordinator.
Gutekunst cautiously visited each topic in a news conference required by the NFL for all general managers. He knows there is still time to gather information before deciding which steps need to be taken for the Packers to resurrect from this failed year, a fall that began with Super Bowl aspirations and likely will end short of the playoffs.
“This season,” Gutekunst said, “has not gone as we expected.”
Big decision: Aaron Rodgers or Jordan Love?
The most important step will be reaching a resolution at quarterback. Gutekunst will revisit a crossroads he reached last offseason, when he could have closed the chapter on the Aaron Rodgers era. He instead made Rodgers the richest player in NFL history with a three-year extension, pushing guaranteed money into future years, a break from how the franchise traditionally structures contracts.
Gutekunst said he had “no regrets” with the path he took, even as this season spiraled. He’ll have a similar decision to make this spring. The Packers can retain Rodgers entering his age-40 season, but that could mean trading backup Jordan Love.
Careful not to hand any mandates to coach Matt LaFleur, Gutekunst said he does not need to see Love play more in the final four games to reach a solid evaluation of the young quarterback. When asked if he believes Love is ready to be a starting-caliber quarterback in the NFL, he did not hesitate.
“I do,” Gutekunst said.
He also added a caveat. Something that can only be attained if Love plays more.
“Those guys,” Gutekunst said, “you’ve got to go out and do it in real games and all that. I think that’s important, but all young quarterbacks go through a period of time where no matter what individual success, I think it takes them a little bit of time to win in this league. That’s going to be important for Jordan no matter when he gets his opportunity, but that’s a big part of it. learning within the game is a very important part of that development.”
Guetkunst said the practice reps Love has taken this season augmented his evaluation. When Rodgers broke his throwing thumb Week 5, Love was thrust into more first-team reps. Of course, a young quarterback can’t win practice. Gutekunst noted the Packers have not been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs this season. He suggested there could be discussion about whether to play Love if that happens, something Rodgers said he would approach with an “open mind” without holding bitterness or resentment.
After Sunday’s win against the Chicago Bears, Rodgers said there would need to be “mutual desire” for him to return next season. Gutekunst deferred the decision to this offseason but said he wants “all our players back” in 2023.
LaFleur said he was “absolutely” interested in Rodgers returning, though his focus currently is on the Packers upcoming game against the Los Angeles Rams in two weeks. He was pleased with how the offense has improved in recent weeks.
“I think we’ve got a great problem,” LaFleur said of his quarterback position. “In terms of when you have confidence in multiple people, you’d rather have that. I do think, just thinking about expectations, and certainly people expect – we all expect – a certain level from him every time, especially when you’re coming off back-to-back MVP seasons. I think you have to be realistic about the situation too. You’re losing almost your entire receiving core, and there’s a lot of people around you. There’s going to be a learning curve to that.
“Not to make excuses. It is what it is. We always expect and want to play that perfect game when we go out and play on the field. So I think, collectively, everybody has got to be better, starting with myself. I just think expectations are a funny thing to try to manage.”
David Bakhtiari's future with Packers is a question
Quarterback won’t be the only personnel decision awaiting Gutekunst. The team will need to determine what its future is with left tackle David Bakhtiari. When healthy, Bakhtiari has played well in his return from missing all of last season because of a torn ACL, but his availability has been inconsistent.
Even before missing Sunday’s game because of an appendectomy – a fluke occurrence that could happen to anyone – the Packers struggled pinning down a schedule that would keep Bakhtiari on the field. He unexpectedly missed a game in Washington this season because his surgically repaired left knee needed a week off. The Packers also reintroduced Bakhtiari to the field by having him play a series-by-series rotation with Yosh Nijman, though that ended by the season’s midway point.
“He is playing at a very, very high level,” Gutekunst said. “Left tackles don’t grow on trees, and we’ve had guys fill in excellent for him. Zach Tom coming in and doing what he’s done as a rookie, and some of the last-minute fires he’s been thrown into, has been pretty impressive.”
The quarterback situation likely will take time to develop this offseason. The Packers could save $8.7 million on their 2023 salary cap if Rodgers is traded before June 1 and $15.8 million if he’s traded after. In the meantime, there is plenty other work to do.
Will defensive coordinator Joe Barry keep job?
LaFleur’s first decision this offseason likely will be whether to retain defensive coordinator Joe Barry. Gutekunst made clear all coaching staff decisions are LaFleur’s to make. He also acknowledged the Packers defense has not reached expectations, though Gutekunst did not place the blame solely on one issue.
“It’s never one thing,” Gutekunst said. “I think we do have a lot of talented guys on defense, but they’ve got to come together as a team, and that takes some sacrifice on their part, as well as everybody in this building. If you’re going to be a good team, you’re going to be a good unit. There’s a lot that goes into that.
“So, again, we’ve got a lot of season left. We’ve got four games that are really important to us around here. I expect those guys to continue working toward that.”