Late in Sunday’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, when the Green Bay Packers appeared to have few positives to take away from an embarrassing defensive curb-stomping, a moment of intrigue came from the most unexpected of places.
The 2020 NFL draft.
Jordan Love, a first-round draft pick that year who once fascinated NFL coaches and executives with his arm strength and seemingly relentless confidence, finally had a breakthrough. It lasted only one quarter and two drives, but it also came at the exact moment when the Packers and their fans needed something — anything — to convince them that the 2022 season contributed a meaningful step toward the future.
Wideout Christian Watson’s impressive touchdown and playmaking explosion will certainly fill some of the void next offseason. But with so much work lying ahead in virtually every corner of the roster, potentially having a realistic young asset at quarterback could mean the difference between a post-Aaron Rodgers pivot or a total rebuild.
That’s what Love can still represent: an illuminated path forward that doesn’t count on Rodgers holding the light. If Green Bay already has that player on its roster, it could be transformative. The only question is, how hard do the Packers want to push to find out? This team is 4-8 and going nowhere, and now a significantly banged up Rodgers has become a roadblock to some much-needed clarity.
The bottom line: Green Bay needs to know what it has in Love. And his little spark leading two scoring drives in the fourth quarter against the Eagles — when Love went 6-for-9 passing for 113 yards and a touchdown — is suggestive that it might be more than anticipated. Not only did Love look decisive and unruffled, he finally looked ready for the opportunity that fell into his lap when Rodgers exited the game with injured ribs.
As he told reporters after the performance, “I felt more prepared. It just comes down to reps and getting those reps and getting comfortable executing those plays. The more I can get, the more the situation is more comfortable.”
That almost sounded like a subtle plea for playing time. Maybe even a few starts before this season is in the books. If it was, the Packers should be overjoyed because it was Rodgers’ competitive yearning that ultimately got him through three years of injuries and awkward tension with Brett Favre before he stepped into the starting role hungry and ready to prove Green Bay had been right when it rolled the draft dice on him.
That might be what Love is now, the 2022 edition of what Rodgers was in 2007. And the brief flash against the Eagles might be comparable to when Rodgers stepped in for an injured Favre against the Dallas Cowboys that season, giving fans an unexpected look at what was waiting on the other side of an aging veteran. The Packers lost that game, too. But the seed had been planted in the minds of the front office and coaching staff, teasing a worthwhile transition that was guaranteed to be difficult.
It’s hard to say if Love is that player right now. He had snaps in six games last season, including one very forgettable start in a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. But it’s interesting that Love’s limited attempts this season have been far more productive than one year ago. And the simple truth about Rodgers is there were times during his first three seasons in the NFL that he gave plenty of reason to doubt he was ever going to live up to his billing as a first-round pick.
So, what to do in this situation? Well, Rodgers wasted no time putting his foot down after the Eagles loss.
Asked about playing next week against the Chicago Bears despite having a broken hand and injured ribs, Rodgers told reporters, “As long as I check out OK [I will play]. I might not be able to go [practice] Wednesday, but as long as there's no major structural damage, I'll try to get back out there.”
(Indeed, he said Tuesday that he got "good news" on his MRI and plans to play Sunday.)
But if the Packers suffer their ninth loss of the season, effectively rendering them out of the playoff hunt, then what?
“I don’t really want to take my mind there but as long as we’re mathematically alive I’d like to be out there,” Rodgers said. “… There’s obviously a lot of other conversations that come into play once you’re eliminated. I’ll be open to those conversations.”
That’s a mindset every quarterback in the NFL would have when it comes to this kind of situation. You keep fighting until the fighting for the postseason is done. It shouldn’t be viewed as selfish. Maybe overly optimistic about the chances of running the table in the remaining five games, but not selfish.
But that doesn’t mean the organization can’t be selfish here. Sometimes that’s what front offices are paid to do: Be selfish about the long-term viability rather than generous about short-term sustainability. That’s where the Packers are right now. This team is horrific against the run. The offensive line needs serious work in the offseason. And it’s time to lean harder into some of the young wideouts, regardless of whether Randall Cobb is healthy or not. Maybe even develop a little chemistry between the quarterback who will be throwing to them after Rodgers is gone. You can’t do that with Love if Rodgers is hanging on for dear life hoping to reach a 9-8 record.
Every single game he occupies as the starter is one less game the team gets to see what Love brings to the table as a replacement. And there’s only five shots left this season and some big roster decisions — including with Rodgers and Love — on the other side of it.
If it turns out Love is a legitimate answer at quarterback, it opens up the possibility that Rodgers and the Packers could sit down and facilitate a trade. Give him the opportunity to take a Tom Brady-esque refresher at the end of his career with the Super Bowl contending team of his choice. They could also take Love in some different directions, too. Either as a tradable commodity (if he plays well enough down the stretch) or a commitment to him taking over the team when Rodgers either retires or gets released following the 2023 season.
Green Bay should be focused on all of those possible outcomes, viewing each of them through a singular prism: Starting Love for multiple games, regardless of what Rodgers prefers. Yes, even if it means benching a Hall of Fame quarterback. The Packers have put more than $300 million into Rodgers' pockets. Now the 2020 draft shot might finally be ready to pay off for the franchise.
This is the moment when Green Bay needs to make a little withdrawal from Rodgers' playing bank and slide it over to Love. For the kid who has been waiting for a chance, and a future that might be a little better off than anyone realized.