There’s a reason Packers head coach Matt LaFleur was so quick to temper expectations ahead of the official start of the Jordan Love era earlier this offseason, even before Green Bay traded Aaron Rodgers.
LaFleur not only used that exact phrase — temper expectations — when cautioning everyone who might be expecting Hall of Fame play from Love right away, but he also specifically said not to expect the 24-year-old to resemble his predecessor from the jump.
There’s nothing wrong with what LaFleur said, no matter how Twitter reacted after he said it at the NFL owners’ meetings in Phoenix. That’s the reality, which is something we don’t usually get from head coaches, as they instead spew politically correct statements in front of a microphone so often. Anyone in their right mind understands that expecting Love to play like Rodgers this soon would be foolish. Even Rodgers wasn’t Aaron Rodgers when he took over for Brett Favre in 2008. What we see from Love in 2023, especially during his first May OTA practices as the full-time starter, likely doesn’t indicate what he’ll become.
What we saw from Love on Tuesday during the first full-team voluntary practice open to reporters was what the Packers have advertised publicly: He has the tools to succeed in his elevated role, but he’ll endure growing pains during such a seismic transition.
“I think there’s a lot of good things and there’s certainly a lot to clean up,” LaFleur said after Tuesday’s practice.
The undesirable during Love’s 11-on-11 work? Passes swatted near the line of scrimmage by cornerback Keisean Nixon coming off the edge and by defensive tackle T.J. Slaton over the middle. A wobbly, underthrown deep ball down the middle to wide receiver Christian Watson that fell incomplete amid three defensive backs. Another wobbler during a red-zone period intended for rookie tight end Luke Musgrave that was broken up by inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell.
The exemplary? A perfectly lofted pass down the left sideline to running back AJ Dillon that would’ve been a touchdown had Dillon not dropped it. A dart through traffic to the back of the end zone for Watson with Nixon in coverage. Another bullet to receiver Romeo Doubs on an out for a 10-yard touchdown through tight coverage, and then another to wideout Samori Toure for a touchdown to cap the day after Slaton batted down his pass.
We also have to be careful critiquing or praising Love at this stage of the offseason too much either way because we don’t know exactly what LaFleur and the coaching staff are asking him to do on a given play. Now is the time for experimenting, perhaps even risk-taking that we wouldn’t see in games. Maybe LaFleur wants him to try a 50-50 deep shot to Toure to see how Love’s deep ball is looking or how Toure matches up in tight coverage deep downfield, even when, say, Musgrave might be wide open over the middle for a first down. If that pass to Toure falls incomplete, we think on the surface that it was a bad decision and Twitter explodes. Love is a bust, of course. In reality, Love might hit Musgrave without thinking twice in this hypothetical situation in a game.
“This is definitely the time to do that,” Love said. “Practice is the time to push the boundaries, test things.”
There can be more layers to plays in practice at this time of year and that’s important to remain cognizant of, especially in our age of hyper-reactive analysis on social media. (Ahem, I’ve been guilty of it at times.) The most important aspect of evaluating Love is to have patience — yes, I know that’s hard to do, especially for Packers fans spoiled by 30 years of Hall of Famers at quarterback — and try to look at a large body of work in practice rather than select plays (the ones listed above are just to provide a sample of what we saw during what seemed to be an up-and-down day, not to draw any grand conclusions). Ultimately, we must wait until preseason games and especially ones during the regular season to draw takeaways of substance.
Heck, we don’t even know how Love looked Monday because reporters weren’t allowed to watch.
“I think it’s still early right now,” Love said. “This is our first week practicing, starting live practicing against the defense. It’s not perfect right now. We know it’s not going to be perfect. I think the meter for us is continue building, make sure we’re doing the right things, in the right place on routes and route depth, timing, things like that. Building that trust to take from the meeting room to the field and make sure everything’s dialed in from that aspect.
“We love when we can capitalize and score touchdowns, but just don’t get down on ourselves when a play’s not perfect or it goes off schedule or things don’t work as we want.”
It’s not just Love that LaFleur and his staff will be attentive to this offseason, though the quarterback probably tops that list.
“Same thing we do every year with every other quarterback in terms of just the whole operation, the process, their ability to go out there and make great decisions, throw on time, throw with accuracy,” LaFleur said of evaluating Love. “Every play is dissected, I would say, and (we are) trying to be super intentional in what we ask them to do. We’ve got to see what everybody else around him can do as well. And we’ve got some youth, so it’s going to be a work in progress, no doubt about it, throughout the course of OTAs and training camp and, quite frankly, throughout the course of the season.”
That’s something else to consider when watching Love this offseason. It’s not like everyone around him knows every intricacy of the offense like Robert Tonyan, Marcedes Lewis, Davante Adams or Allen Lazard did. Yes, there’s vast experience in LaFleur’s system on the offensive line and at running back, but Love has more experience here than all the wide receivers and tight ends on the roster who figure to play substantial meaningful snaps this season. Bringing them along is important, too, and in some ways more important because they might have more to learn than Love, who has been here since 2020.
“I feel like it’s school again, taking another class,” rookie receiver Dontayvion Wicks said. “You’ve got to learn so much, so fast. And there’s a lot to learn. I think you really have to be a smart player to get everything down here with Green Bay.”
Like we saw last season with receivers running incorrect routes with Rodgers at quarterback, and those mistakes resulting in broken plays, it reflects poorly on the quarterback on the surface. But there’s more to some plays that we don’t realize at first and may never realize. Will Love have his faults, moments that make fans wonder whether he can actually be the guy for Green Bay, mistakes that will actually be his more than anyone else’s? Undoubtedly. But a fine-tooth comb might be required more often than not this offseason, especially when evaluating a quarterback who won’t cover up flaws around him like Rodgers could.
Just remember: Patience is a virtue, especially in this case, however difficult it may be.
(Photo of Jordan Love: Mark Hoffman / USA Today)