Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers era is over. But is Jordan Love any good?

<span>Photograph: Doug Murray/AP</span>
Photograph: Doug Murray/AP

Two years ago, Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams decided to run it back for one last year together at the Green Bay Packers under The Last Dance moniker, aping the Michael Jordan propaganda/documentary series.

The tension at the heart of the Jordan doc was the idea that drives all great sports breakups: Who is responsible for winning championships? Organizations or players? Jordan-Krause, Belichick-Brady, LeBron-Riley, Keane-Ferguson. Across sports, dynastic runs have come unstuck as champions fight to claim the credit for winning.

“Players and coaches alone don’t win championships,” Chicago Bulls GM Jerry Krause infamously said. “Organizations win championships.”

Krause was portrayed as the villain of The Last Dance. But to the Packers, he was a soothsayer. They are the pre-eminent flag wavers for the idea of the organization above all. And who can blame them? With back-to-back Hall of Famers – Rodgers and Brett Favre – at quarterback, they have remained in title contention for all but a couple of seasons since 1992. In Green Bay, Hall of Fame play isn’t an outlier, it’s the expectation.

Only the Indianapolis Colts have come close to the kind of back-to-back quarterback talent that the Packers have run out since 1992. They followed the Peyton Manning era with Andrew Luck. And once Luck retired prematurely, the Colts found themselves leaping from one ill-conceived, quick-fix plan to another. They went from model citizens of the league to a laughing stock in the blink of an eye, with Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz, Matt Ryan, and Jeff Saturday.

Related: NFL free agency: Jets are winners, Raiders are losers. The Broncos? Who knows?

But the Packers aren’t the Colts. Just as when Rodgers succeeded Favre, Jordan Love will walk into the huddle with high expectations from the get go.

Stepping off the Rodgers’ ledge is a bold, but necessary move for the Packers. The clock is already ticking on Love’s rookie deal. They need to find out if he can play – really play – right now.

It won’t be easy. Even though their four-time MVP will almost certainly join the New York Jets (the same team Favre left Green Bay for) in the coming weeks, the Packers will continue to pay for the cap sins of the later stages of the Rodgers era through 2024. It won’t be until 2025 that they have some maneuverability to truly build around Love. By delaying things an extra year, the Packers lost the initial window when they could have taken advantage of Love’s relatively cheap rookie contract. Soon, they’ll have to decide whether to extend Love or not – and at what price.

There could be some wriggle room to add immediate reinforcements once the team figures out the specifics of the Rodgers to New York deal. But the chances of adding pieces who can have an immediate impact this coming season are minimal. Instead, they’ll look again to the draft.

Not that Love will find himself in a hopeless situation. The Packers have been building towards this moment for a couple of seasons – a source of some of the tension with Rodgers. Since drafting Love in the first round, they’ve tried to straddle two worlds: Preparing for Love and the future while trying to keep the roster competitive with Rodgers. They tried to reset their timeline last offseason, trading away Adams and adding a pair of rookie receivers. They brought back the bulk of Rodgers’ buddies for one final ride in 2022, but they resisted some of the shock-and-awe tactics that would have torpedoed their core in the post-Rodgers world.

Now, with Rodgers’ trusted lieutenants – Allen Lazard, Marcedes Lewis, and Randall Cobb – following him out of the building, the Packers have reduced the age of the skill position spots surrounding their young quarterback:

  • QB: Love, 24

  • WR: Christian Watson, 23

  • WR: Romeo Doubs, 22

  • WR: Samori Toure, 25

  • TE: Josiah Deguara, 26

  • RB: Aaron Jones, 28

The mean age of that group: a little under 25.

There is upside in a young group growing together. When the Packers drafted a pair of rookie receivers last offseason, Rodgers blew off offseason workouts. Love worked relentlessly with the new receiving corps, mastering the Matt LaFleur offense.

The Packers are itching to find out if Love is the real deal. “It’s just time for him to play,” GM Brian Gutekunst said this week.

“It’s going to be a progression,” LaFleur said on Tuesday. Even the most zen of offensive masterminds eventually want to see their offense on the field – egos and all. Rodgers was given full autonomy to adjust or change what LaFleur called, boosting his coach’s reputation, and fattening his wallet.

“A lot of people have been rewarded, quite frankly, because of [Rodgers’] ability to go out there and play, and play at such a high level. I’m just going to leave it at that,” LaFleur said. The Love-LaFleur partnership will see him out on his own with a quarterback executing his ideas, not freelancing or correcting structural flaws – at least not yet.

Muted in public, the Packers have apparently been positively giddy about Love in private.

The early signs on the field have been up and down. In his first start in Kansas City in spot duty for Rodgers in 2021, Love was in over his head. He looked frazzled by the complexity and speed of the NFL – and this after sitting for his first season in the league.

Chiefs’ DC Steve Spagnuolo put the young quarterback in a blender, pushing him to perfect the kind of pre-snap rituals that are old hat for veteran quarterbacks. Spagnuolo blitzed the holy hell out of Love, typically a no-no against good professional QBs. Love crumbled. He struggled with the basics of the pre-snap procedure. He looked off open players and threaded no-chance-in-hell passes to covered ones. You could almost hear Rodgers chuckling from the comfy confines of his Covid bed. This is the guy you want to replace me with. Are you kidding me?

That flipped last year. Late in the season against Philly, Love entered the game in the midst of a blowout. He brought an electric jolt to the Packers’ staccato offense. Pressed into action after a rib injury to Rodgers, Love looked poised and confident. The skittishness from his first outing evaporated. He led the Packers on two scoring drives in the fourth-quarter.

The Eagles didn’t challenge the young quarterback with the same kind of intensity or creativity as Spagnuolo did the year before. When they did, Love appeared to have mastered some of the subtleties of the position that had eluded him against Kansas City.

With less to negotiate pre-snap, Love was free to drop back and sling it, and he carved up the top team in the NFC. He bobbed and weaved away from pressure. He launched strikes downfield. With Love and the crop of rookie receivers, the Packers’ offense looked like it was playing on 1.5x compared to the cumbersome group headlined by Rodgers, Cobb, and Lewis. Love finished 6-of-9 for 113 yards with a touchdown, averaging 12.6 yards per pass attempt. It may have come late in a blowout against a team that had all but wrapped up a playoff spot, but it was a signal that Love was ready to start – if not in Green Bay, somewhere.

The Packers decided to bet on themselves, to bet on the idea of the organization above all.

Choosing Love over Rodgers means a self-imposed drop from the top of the NFC to the middle of the pack. Building from the middle is messy, but it’s preferable to building from the bottom. Ask the Cleveland Browns how it feels to stomach successive seasons on the bottom rung of the NFL’s ladder. Typically, it ends with resentment and dismissals.

At a minimum, Love will serve as mouthwash for the bad taste of the final days of Rodgers. But in Titletown, that’s not enough. Winning it all is the goal. Stockpiling singles and doubles will help put Love in a position to succeed. But for the Packers to achieve the impossible, the front office needs Love to be a home run selection.

There isn’t much on the line, just the legacy of the league’s most storied franchise, and, in Rodgers, one of the game’s most storied players. Oh, and the reputations of team president Mark Murphy, Gutenkunst and LaFleur, one of the brightest and most successful young coaches in the league.

Over to you, Jordan. No pressure.