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Jordan Love’s second NFL season brought valuable experience, but also areas where growth, improvement are vital

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Packers' Jordan Love throws a short pass to Equanimeous St. Brown during the second half Sunday against the Lions. The quarterback had a 68.7 passer rating during the regular season.

GREEN BAY — Late in the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s regular-season finale in Detroit, Allen Lazard went looking for Jordan Love on the Green Bay Packers’ sideline. Less than 2 minutes remained on the Ford Field clock, the Packers were down by four points, and Love was going to have a shot at an early career-defining moment: Driving for the go-ahead touchdown in a game that was anything but meaningless to him.

Just as Lazard had received from quarterback Aaron Rodgers so many times over the past few years, Lazard wanted to pay it forward to Rodgers’ young backup. After all, with the NFC playoffs up next, this would likely be Love’s last opportunity to show the world what he could do until next preseason — or so the Packers hope it is.

“I was like, ‘Go own the huddle. Go instill some confidence and positive energy in those guys. And make it be well known that you guys are going to finish the drive off with a touchdown,’” Lazard recounted. “Obviously, it didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but mistakes happen all the time. Just because it happened at the end, it’s going to be pointed out a little bit more. But I thought he did a great job, and he’s steadily been growing this entire year. He’s grown throughout practice, week-in and week-out. I’m very proud of him.”

To be sure, Love’s final two drives in the Lions’ 37-30 victory weren’t storybook endings. He threw interceptions to end each of them, with the first being deflected at the line of scrimmage and then caroming off his receiver and into the arms of the Lions’ C.J. Moore with 1:13 to play, and the second coming when Love airmailed a sidearm throw under pressure to the Lions’ Tracy Walker with 21 seconds left.

“Sometimes you make an accurate throw with pressure in the face and sometimes you don’t. Unfortunately, that one sailed a little bit and was picked off, and that was the ballgame,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “I think every opportunity that he gets to go out there and compete is a great, valuable learning experience for him.”

And for Love, the 2020 first-round draft pick who didn’t even get to put his No. 10 jersey on for game day during his rookie season, serving as the inactive third quarterback for all 18 games, there were plenty of valuable learning experiences. With Rodgers missing the team’s Nov. 7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs after contracting COVID-19, only playing the first half against the Lions and missing a ton of practice time during the second half of the season while resting the fractured pinkie toe on his left foot that he injured while quarantining, Love got plenty of in-season work to go with his extended time in training camp and preseason play.

All told, Love finished the regular season having played 131 snaps, completing 36 of 62 passes (58.1%) for 411 yards with two touchdowns, three interceptions and three sacks for a passer rating of 68.7. He also ran seven times for 32 yards, not counting end-of-half and end-of-game kneel-downs.

Love got his most extensive work against the Chiefs and Lions (100 combined snaps), and also saw mop-up action in the season-opening blowout loss to New Orleans (15 snaps) and in the Jan. 2 win over the Minnesota Vikings (12 snaps).

“Anytime you can get out there, anytime you have a chance to really play football, it’s so great,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said.

As valuable as those in-game snaps are, Rodgers’ toe injury might’ve been the biggest blessing in disguise for the Packers in the event that somehow Rodgers doesn’t return for an 18th season in Green Bay next year. Before a bout with COVID-19 himself, Love was taking all the first-team offensive snaps with Rodgers reduced to bystander status while resting the toe in advance of games.

After getting limited in-practice work as a rookie because Rodgers needed the first-team reps and primary backup Tim Boyle handled most of the scout-team reps, Love got work during the week that he never otherwise would have gotten. It was during those sessions that LaFleur said he saw Love improve his grasp of the offense, his fundamentals and his footwork.

“I would say (Love improved) in every facet, just understanding what we’re trying to get accomplished on each and every play,” LaFleur said. “I think the consistency with his footwork, because I always think footwork is the foundation of good quarterback play and how you let your feet take you through your reads and making sure your eyes match your footwork. I just think that those are valuable reps that he’s been able to get during practice and hopefully that translates if he gets an opportunity to play.”

Clearly, the Packers don’t want to see Love doing anything other than kneeling out playoff victories between now and Super Bowl LVI. Since Brett Favre became the starting quarterback in 1992 and going through this season, the Packers have made the playoffs in 22 of those 30 seasons. In those 22 postseasons, only one quarterback other than Favre or Rodgers — Mark Brunell — attempted a pass. (Brunell threw 11 passes during garbage time in a 35-9 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the 1994 NFC divisional round.)

Instead, they want to see Love continue to help Rodgers with all the support work backups do, from breaking down opposing defenses’ tendencies off film to serving as a sounding board to flesh out ideas.

“I’ve seen Jordan’s personality continue to come out as he settles into the NFL and professional life,” Rodgers said. “It’s been a lot of fun. He’s a great kid. He really is. He cares about it. He works his butt off. He asks good questions. He’s got a great, wry sense of humor. He’s a quiet kid, but I respect that. I was a quiet kid as a young player, too. I really enjoy his personality. I enjoy his friendship and we have a lot of fun together. I’m proud of him.”

While the understandable desire given Rodgers’ uncertain future and Love’s draft status is to try to make definitive statements on his ability and potential, it’s surely too early to do so. That said, he clearly must improve immensely in the three areas the Packers coaches emphasize if he winds up being the guy in 2022. How much more he grows will ultimately decide the trajectory of his career.

“All we try to do is try to coach the quarterback on three things every play: Decision making, timing and accuracy,” LaFleur said. “With that, I think that’s all you can really do to help him be a consistent player, because I do think the foundation of quarterback play starts with those great fundamentals. It starts with making sure your footwork is flawless, that your footwork kind of takes your eyes through your progression, and you’re making the correct decision. And then the accuracy many times is making sure your body is in the right position to be able to deliver the ball with pinpoint accuracy. So we’ll continue to work with him on every rep that he gets.”

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