GREEN BAY — Jordan Love leaned his right shoulder against the hallway wall, adjusted his charcoal knit winter stocking cap and pondered the question.
The Green Bay Packers backup quarterback of the present — and, perhaps, their starting quarterback of the future, if and when the opportunity finally arrives — was contemplating one particular word:
Love had been asked if he ever looks at the other four quarterbacks taken in the first or second round of the 2020 NFL draft — the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow, the Miami Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa, the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts — and is jealous of what they’re doing while he continues to hold a Microsoft Surface tablet on the sideline behind four-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, and with no clear-cut path to the starting job in 2023 to look forward to.
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As the 5-8 Packers return from their bye week and try to turn around their disappointing season by winning their final four games and sneaking into the postseason as a wild card, Hurts and the Eagles (12-1) had become the first team in the NFL to clinch a playoff berth with their win over the New York Giants; Burrow had led the Bengals (9-4) to a victory over the Cleveland Browns for their fifth consecutive win; and Tagovailoa and Herbert were squaring off in a prime-time “Sunday Night Football” matchup in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt.
That foursome — with Burrow, Tagovailoa and Herbert having come off the board before the Packers traded up to take Love at No. 26 overall, and with Hurts going 27 picks after Love toward the end of the second round — entered the Sunday night game having thrown for a combined 13,040 yards and 90 touchdowns this season.
Love? He’s played just 19 snaps this season, and for all the excitement he generated a few weeks ago by playing well in relief of an injured Rodgers against the Eagles, he’s still only thrown a not-so-grand total of 80 passes in games that counted in the standings in nearly three full NFL seasons.
“I wouldn’t say I get jealous of them. I think of the position they’re in,” Love finally said. “We’re all obviously from the same class, and they came in and got the opportunity to play right away. That’s just not the situation here.
“I think, if I came in and was starting my first year and was able to play three years as a starter, I think I’d be right there with them, doing the same things. But, that’s just not the situation.”
Asked how he thought he’d have played if he would’ve been thrust into the starting lineup as a rookie, Love replied, “I think about that a lot, actually. If I was somewhere else, starting right away, obviously it’s hard for rookie quarterbacks and young quarterbacks. And if it doesn’t go your way right away, it’s like, they’re already looking for someone else to replace you. It’s tough. I just think I’m getting this opportunity to sit, learn and not be thrown into the fire right away, and I think it’ll pay off — for sure.
“I’m appreciative of the situation. Obviously, I want to be out there on the field. But I’m appreciative of the situation.”
‘I don’t know how he does it’
In an extended conversation before the team’s Dec. 4 win at Chicago and the ensuing bye week, Love not only reflected on his buzz-generating 10-play stint against the Eagles on Nov. 30 but the journey that has taken him from being the guy whose draft-day selection ticked Rodgers off to no end, to being the guy some fans are hoping will start the rest of the season with a playoff berth looking like a pipe dream for a team that’s in a three-way tie for the 10th-best record in the NFC and sitting behind Minnesota (10-3) and Detroit (6-7) just in the NFC North alone.
Love spoke about how far he’s come since spending his rookie season as the third quarterback, about the doubt that crept in during that first year, and how he’s compartmentalizing the uncertainty that lies ahead for him.
“I think that’s one of the best things about him — and I think it’s unique,” said Packers safety Dallin Leavitt, who was a senior at Utah State in 2017, when Love was a redshirt freshman and started the Aggies’ final six games that season.
“I don’t know how he does it. Throughout my career, I’ve been a (roster) bubble guy, and every year there’s that uncertainty for me. It’s something I struggle with. It’s really hard. So for him to be able to do that, it’s pretty impressive.”
With Rodgers sidelined by an injury to his ribs in Philadelphia, Love completed 6 of 9 passes for 113 yards, including an on-target, on-time strike to Christian Watson on a crossing route that Watson caught 9 yards beyond the line of scrimmage and turned into a 63-yard touchdown.
Not a single pass Love threw against the Eagles was off target, and it had more than a few observers flashing back to Nov. 29, 2007, when Rodgers came in for an injured Brett Favre in Dallas and nearly led the Packers to a come-from-behind win.
Dallas déjà vu
Rodgers entered that game early in the second quarter down 27-10 and wound up playing 40 snaps, but he engineered two touchdown drives that had Packers within 27-24 and with the ball with a chance to tie the game or take the lead at the start of the fourth quarter before losing 37-27.
“It kind of confirmed what we thought about him. We thought he could have some success,” said longtime offensive assistant Tom Clements, who was the quarterbacks coach for both that game and Love’s stint against the Eagles. “Now, Jordan didn’t play that much (against Philadelphia), but when Jordan runs the scout team against our defense, he’s making plays. So, it’s gratifying to see when he plays the game, and got some playing time, that he did the same things in the game.
“It kind of confirms that he has some very good ability.”
Asked if he saw parallels between Rodgers’ performance in that 2007 game — Love had just turned 9 a few weeks earlier — and his own showing against the Eagles, Love replied the same way Rodgers had back then: That the game was important because it showed others what he already knew.
“I think it’s more that everybody around me is able to see it. I believed,” Love said. “I believe I’m not here by accident. I believe there’s a reason why I’m here. I just haven’t been able to showcase that.”
But, Love confessed, there were doubts during his pandemic-affected rookie season, when he was the No. 3 quarterback behind Rodgers and Tim Boyle and never even got to wear his No. 10 jersey on a gameday.
“I think most of that (doubt) was my rookie year, when I came in and I wasn’t even the backup,” Love said. “I think that was the toughest part, to be a first-round pick, come in and be the third-string quarterback. That was tough. But I was just like, ‘I’ve just got to keep getting better. I’ve got to find a way to get better.’”
And now, there’s no debate — he did get better.
By his own admission, Love didn’t play well in his first NFL start at Kansas City last season, when he completed 19 of 34 passes for 190 yards with a touchdown and an interception (69.5 rating) in a 13-7 loss with Rodgers sidelined by COVID-19.
But against the Eagles, he looked like a different quarterback, and showed all the areas of improvement — decision-making, processing, footwork, rhythm and timing — that Clements had observed throughout training camp and in-season practices, where Love not only has run the scout team but got extended first-team snaps while Rodgers nursed a broken right thumb.
“I think since I came back this offseason, I think my confidence has just been rising every time I step on the field,” Love said. “I’m able to see myself make those plays, and it’s like, ‘I can do this, too.’ Obviously I’ve seen Aaron do a lot of things, and now I’m starting to do those, too. And I think, ‘If he can do it, I can do it too. So, let’s try it and see.’
“I think my confidence has just been building and building and building.”
Where that leads, of course, is anyone’s guess — including Love’s.
Speaking with reporters during his first in-season Q&A session of the year, general manager Brian Gutekunst said he doesn’t feel the need to play Love in the team’s final four games — starting with next Monday night’s matchup with the Los Angeles Rams at Lambeau Field — instead of the 39-year-old Rodgers to feel better about Love succeeding Rodgers if Rodgers decides to retire.
“We’re really pleased with his progression and what he’s been able to do,” Gutekunst said last week. “I think that it would be really good for him (to play in games), the growth that you need to go through, seeing things for the first time, making those mistakes that you need to make. But I think from our end of it, we’ve seen what we need to see.”
At the same time, Gutekunst said the team wants Rodgers, who is under contract through 2024 and set to earn a guaranteed $59.3 million next season, to return for his 19th NFL season and 16th as the starter if Rodgers wants to keep playing.
So, where does that leave Love? Asked if Rodgers comes back for the 2023 season if he really is willing to sit for yet another year, Love replied, “That’s something me and my agent will talk about. We’ll figure that out.”
Although Love could request a trade, it’s hard to know what the Packers could get back in return — especially if he doesn’t play another snap this season. He’s also invested three years in head coach Matt LaFleur’s system and could thrive once he’s finally given the keys to the car, while starting fresh in a new system would be more difficult.
On top of that, Rodgers will turn 40 before the end of the 2023 season, and given the injuries he’s dealt with this season, even one of the NFL’s toughest quarterbacks isn’t a sure thing to make it through another year without missing time.
The Packers also must decide in early May whether to exercise the fifth-year option — at a guaranteed cost of nearly $20 million — on Love’s rookie contract for the 2024 season. In theory, making that commitment would ensure Love of being the starter in 2024.
No wonder Love is trying to focus on the here and now — even though he admits he’s not always able to do that.
“Literally, control what I can control. That’s all I can do. Try not to focus on the moves that are going on behind the scenes, what could happen,” Love said. “I’m here right now. I’m the backup. And when I get those chances to go in there and play, I want to make the most of them.
“If they say, ‘Hey, Aaron’s done for the season. You’re starting.’ Then, OK. Control what I can control. I’m not in control of that situation. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know what’s going to happen this offseason, I don’t know what’s going to happen next year. Obviously my contract, things like that — I don’t know. So I try not to put too much thought into it.
“Yeah, I think about it, but why waste time or have anxiety over a situation that who knows what’s going to happen?”