GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Here's what Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur thinks quarterback Jordan Love can do now: "I think we have a lot of confidence -- if need be, if he had to go in there -- that [he] absolutely could win a game."
At this point, that will have to be enough.
LaFleur and the rest of the organization probably don't have enough evidence to make a decision on whether Love can be a successful full-time starter in the NFL. But unless something catastrophic happens to Aaron Rodgers, they won't need to make that determination yet.
To be sure, there are long-term questions that will make for some difficult decisions before they might have all the answers. The first could come immediately after this season if the 38-year-old Rodgers decides to walk away. And even if Rodgers returns and Love can get another year of development time to convince them he is the long-term answer, they have to decide by May whether to exercise his fifth-year option (which could cost more than $20 million) for 2024.
But at least they can say they feel better about Love heading into Week 1 of 2022 than they did at the end of the 2021 season, when he struggled during his only start -- a 13-7 loss at Kansas City while Rodgers was on the COVID-19 list. This after Love started all three preseason games this summer.
While he threw more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (three), it was how he looked -- in those exhibition games and the kinds of plays he made in practice -- that gives the Packers reason to think they might have something more in Love than they did a year ago.
"I see a lot more decisive player out there that is letting the ball rip," LaFleur said. "I think a lot of times, we all get enamored by the numbers; I don't think the numbers in this instance really give it a great sense of how he did. I think he graded out pretty well. Certainly, it's not perfect; it's never going to be perfect. There's a couple throws that I'm sure he'd like to have back, but I thought, all in all, it was definitely a step in the right direction for him."
That Love did it behind a patchwork offensive line and without the benefit of the Packers' top three receivers (Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb and Sammy Watkins), without their top two running backs (Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon) and without their No. 1 tight end (Robert Tonyan) -- none of whom played in the preseason -- also factored into LaFleur"s evaluation.
"It's not like he was going with all the weapons that we have on our roster," LaFleur said.
The Tom Clements effect
MAKE NO MISTAKE about it, LaFleur hired Tom Clements as quarterbacks coach this offseason to replace Luke Getsy (who became the Chicago Bears' offensive coordinator) because Rodgers wanted him back. But a secondary benefit has been Love's chance to learn from the coach who Rodgers has said most shaped him early in his career.
"I mentioned that to Matt after the season, that if 'Gets' got a job, and he wanted to bring in somebody to teach fundamentals the right way every single day, then Tom is the guy," Rodgers said.
To hear Rodgers tell it, Clements harps on footwork. At one point during training camp, Rodgers gave a few reporters a mini tutorial on what he meant by getting up from his locker and demonstrating how precise a quarterback’s steps must be in order to deliver the ball on time and accurately.
When asked what is the biggest difference he has seen in Love, Rodgers referenced his footwork, saying, "Honestly, that. I have seen that."
He cited a deep ball that Love threw to Watkins in practice as an example.
"He one-hitched a perfect 4/5-5/4 to throw that ball," Rodgers said, explaining that the numbers represent a quarterback's steps. "And that's the difference. When you start figuring out the fundamentals and throwing from the ground up, the throwing becomes the easy part because your feet tell you exactly when to throw the ball. And that was beautiful footwork.
"I really think the biggest difference is Year 3 is always a jump, but I've seen the fundamentals get that little cleanup that needed to happen to allow him to be a little bit more accurate."
A 'master' of the offense
IT WAS AT THIS POINT in Rodgers' career -- his third season -- that he began to convince the Packers he could be a worthy successor to Brett Favre. A relief appearance against the Dallas Cowboys during which Rodgers almost rallied the Packers to a victory might have been the final example they needed in order to feel comfortable moving on from Favre in 2008.
While Love is running a different version of the West Coast offense under LaFleur than what Rodgers learned under Mike McCarthy, Rodgers' belief that it takes three years to learn the system holds true.
"I think he's definitely become a master of the offense," Rodgers said of Love on the TV broadcast of last week's preseason finale. "But it is just the little things that are going to help him level up. A lot of it is the footwork. Little things like arm angles on run action, his keeper fakes, his hard-action fakes, his run-solutions and RPO game, helping him marry that up with the running game, that's what I like seeing."
Players on the Packers' starting defense have said they see a much different version of Love than what they saw last season -- and not just on the field.
"In today's world, with all the outside noise, we're all people and that kind of gets to you," safety Darnell Savage said. "But he's got tunnel vision now. He's focusing on his craft and being the best Jordan that Jordan can be. I think he's approached it with the right mindset, and it's paying off for him."
As for where Love sees himself in Year 3, he said: "I think I definitely took a lot of good strides this preseason from when we started in OTAs to now. Just from the first two years I've been here, there's a lot of growth in just my play and decision-making and how comfortable I feel. So I felt good about it."