Photo: Doug Murray/AP
Two years ago, Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams decided to do it again together at the Green Bay Packers last year under the name The Last Dance, emulating the Michael Jordan Propaganda/documentary series.
The tension at the heart of the Jordan Document was the idea that drives all major sports splits: who is responsible for winning championships? organizations or players? Jordan Krause, Belichick Brady, LeBron Riley, Keane Ferguson. Across sports, dynastic runs have spiraled out of control as champions struggle to claim credit for victory.
“Players and coaches alone don’t win championships,” said Chicago Bulls GM Jerry Krause called. “Organizations win championships.”
Krause was portrayed as the villain of The Last Dance. But to the Packers, he was a fortune teller. Above all, they are the outstanding flag-wavers for the idea of the organization. And who can blame them? With back-to-back Hall of Famers — Rodgers and Brett Favre — as quarterbacks, they’ve stayed in contention for the title since 1992, except for a couple of seasons. In Green Bay, the Hall of Famer game isn’t an outlier, it’s the anticipation.
Only the Indianapolis Colts have come close to the kind of back-to-back quarterback talent that the Packers have been short of since 1992. You followed the Peyton Manning era with Andrew Luck. And when Luck took early retirement, the Colts jumped from one ill-conceived quick fix plan to another. Starring Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz, Matt Ryan, and Jeff Saturday, they went from being exemplary citizens of the league to being laughed at in the blink of an eye.
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But the Packers are not the Colts. Just as Rodgers succeeded Favre, Jordan Love will go into the scrum with high expectations from the start.
Stepping off the Rodgers’ ledge is a bold but necessary move for the Packers. The clock is already ticking for Love’s rookie deal. You have to find out if he can play – really play – now.
It will not be easy. Although 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 until 2024 It will not last until 2025 until they have some maneuverability to really build around love. By delaying things for another year, the Packers lost the initial window in which they could have taken advantage of Love’s relatively inexpensive rookie contract. Soon, they must decide whether or not to prolong love — and at what cost.
There could be some leeway to add immediate reinforcements once the team figures out the details of Rodgers’ deal to New York. But the chances of adding pieces that can have an immediate impact in the upcoming season are minimal. Instead, they look at the draft again.
Not that Love will be in a hopeless situation. The Packers have been working toward this moment for a couple of seasons — a source of some 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 attempted to reset their timeline last offseason, trading Adams and adding a pair of rookie receivers. They brought back most of the Rodgers cronies for one last 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 that Rodgers’ trusted lieutenants – Allen Lazard, Marcedes Lewis and Randall Cobb – are following him out of the building, the Packers have reduced the age of the skill position spots to include their young quarterback:
QB: Love, 24
RE: Christian Watson, 23
WR: Romeo Doubs, 22
WR: Samori Touré, 25
TE: Josiah Deguara, 26
RB: Aaron Jones, 28
The average age of this group: just under 25.
There are advantages in a young group growing together. When the Packers drafted a pair of rookie receivers last offseason, Rodgers dropped offseason practices. Love worked tirelessly with the new receiving corps and mastered Matt LaFleur’s offense.
The Packers are desperate to find out if love is the real thing. “It’s just about time he played,” GM Brian Gutekunst said this week.
“It’s going to be an evolution,” LaFleur said Tuesday. After all, even the biggest offensive masterminds want to see her Offensive 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 were rewarded for that, to be honest [Rodgers’] Ability to go out there and play and play at such a high level. I’ll just leave it at that,” LaFleur said. The Love-LaFleur partnership won’t see him alone with a quarterback executing his ideas work freelance or fix structural deficiencies – at least not yet.
The Packers have apparently been silent in public positively dizzy about love in private.
The first signs on the field were up and down. For his first start in Kansas City on spot duty for Rodgers in 2021, Love was overwhelmed. He seemed exhausted by the complexity and speed of the NFL — and that’s after serving his first season in the league.
Chiefs’ DC Steve Spagnuolo put the young quarterback in a blender and urged him to do it Perfect the kind of pre-snap rituals those are old hats for seasoned quarterbacks. Spagnuolo flashed holy hell out of Love, which is usually a no go against good professional QBs. Love broke. He struggled with the basics of the pre-snap procedure. He looked at open players and threaded in chance passes to hidden ones. You could almost hear Rodgers giggling from the comfortable confines of his Covid bed. That’s the guy you’re trying to replace me with. Are you kidding me?
That flipped last year. Towards the end of the season against Philly, Love came on in the middle of a blowout. He delivered an electric shock to the Packers’ staccato offense. Love, pushed into action after suffering a rib injury from Rodgers, looked poised and confident. The shyness of his first trip vanished. He led the Packers on two scoring drives in the fourth quarter.
The Eagles didn’t challenge the young quarterback with the same intensity or creativity as Spagnuolo did the year before. When they did, Love appeared to have mastered some of the intricacies of position that eluded him against Kansas City.
With less to negotiate before the snap, Love was able to drop back and hurl it, and he split the top team in the NFC. He rocked and squirmed away from the pressure. He launched strikes in the field. With Love and the crop of rookie receivers, the Packers offense looked like they were playing at 1.5x compared to the lumbering group featuring Rodgers, Cobb and Lewis. Love finished 6 of 9 for 113 yards with a touchdown, averaging 12.6 yards per pass attempt. It might come late in a blowout against a team that nearly had a playoff spot, but it was a signal that Love was ready to start — if not in Green Bay, anywhere.
The Packers decided to bet on themselves, primarily on the idea of organization.
Choosing Love over Rodgers is a self-imposed descent 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 endure back-to-back seasons at the bottom rung of the NFL ladder. Typically, it ends in resentment and layoffs.
At the very least, Love will serve as a mouthwash for Rodgers’ bad taste of the last few days. But at Titletown, that’s not enough. The goal is to win everything. Accumulating singles and doubles matches will help put Love in a winning position. But for the Packers to achieve the impossible, the front office needs Love to be a home run pick.
Not much is at stake, just the legacy of the league’s most iconic franchise and in Rodgers, one of the game’s most iconic players. Oh, and the reputation of team president Mark Murphy, Gutenkunst and LaFleur, one of the brightest and most successful young coaches in the league.
To you, Jordan. No pressure.