Amid Aaron Rodgers drama, Jordan Love is staying focused on the most important thing: Jordan Love
Programming note: While the free edition of The Leap usually comes out Monday, we decided to push that to later in the week. Instead, today's newsletter will focus on Jordan Love.
Peyton Manning was impressed.
Jordan Love, a lightly recruited kid from Bakersfield, California, fired a hole shot into Cover 2 at the Manning Passing Academy and created a buzz on the same field with Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa. Steve Calhoun, Love’s personal quarterbacks coach, smiled and said to Manning, “Hey, I told you.”
This was the summer after Love’s breakout sophomore season at Utah State when he dazzled with his playmaking and arm talent but before his lackluster junior season. While the world waits on an answer from Aaron Rodgers, Love works with Calhoun to maximize the talent that turned heads so he’s ready whenever he does get a shot to prove he’s a franchise quarterback. He’s doing it by making sure he stays true to his own play, not try to copy the four-time MVP.
Calhoun working to get Love invited to the Manning camp passed on the same favor another person had done for him: introducing him to Love. He’d received a call from Brian Nixon, Love’s high school coach, who had previously introduced Calhoun to former NFL quarterback Cody Kessler.
“I knew for Coach Nixon to call me up and say ‘Hey, I have another one,’ I mean Cody Kessler broke every record in the valley,” Calhoun explains.
“So when he said, ‘I have another special one,’ I saw it right away. Just the way he can naturally throw the ball. We just needed to fine-tune everything.”
When Nixon arrived at Liberty High School, Love wasn’t even a full-time quarterback yet. In fact, Love was a 5-foot-6 freshman, weighing about 130 pounds and playing receiver, kick returner, and quarterback. His sophomore year, when he won the junior varsity quarterback job, he was already 5-foot-11. By his senior season, he was 6-foot-2 but still only 165 pounds, maybe 170 according to Nixon.
“We kept telling him, hey man you’re going to be 6-foot-4, 230 pounds,” Nixon says, laughing. Love measured in at 6-foot-3, 224 pounds at the combine, so they got pretty close.
Even as a gangly sophomore though, the arm strength was apparent. But he was constantly working on his fundamentals because while he was a physically gifted thrower, he didn’t quite have a handle on how his body was moving. This wasn’t a kid who was so gifted he could merely get away with not having a good foundation.
“His arm slot changed so much from his sophomore to his senior year just because of the growth. He was still figuring out his body,” Nixon explains.
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Luckily for Love, the mental side of the game was never a doubt according to Nixon. In Liberty’s spread offense, the quarterback had to make reads before and after the snap with pre and post-snap RPO’s a staple of the scheme. He was able to process quickly, absorb information, and adjust on the fly.
Love’s mental toughness, his consistency no matter the situation, caught Nixon’s attention.
“That’s one of the characteristics that you love,” Nixon says. “He’s truly a competitor but he’s always in control of that. There’s no too high or no too low. It’s ‘that play’s over; next play’s on.’ And his mind’s right for that. I think that’s one of the characteristics that really sticks out.”
Nixon says Love has never been the loudest player in the locker room, but he leads by example and that was long before he was viewed, even locally, as a future NFL player.
“He always had that ability. Not a huge vocal leader, but more of a work ethic leader and competitive leader which guys understood when it was time to go, it was time to go, and he was the guy they looked to,” Nixon recalls.
Love’s work ethic forged a quick and enduring bond with Calhoun.
“If you have aspirations of playing in the NFL, let’s throw NFL routes,” Calhoun told Love.
“His sophomore year, we were out throwing and he’s throwing 18-yard comebacks, and digs and the ball is maybe 7 1/2 feet off the ground, driving the football and I’m like ‘Ok, that’s different.’”
The Manning Passing Academy wasn’t the first time Calhoun paid it forward on his introduction to Love. During Love’s prep recruitment at Liberty High School, a process Calhoun says was scuttled for Love because the system relies too heavily on scouting service stars and not enough on watching the film, Calhoun reached out to Josh Heupel at Utah State.
He told Heupel, now the head coach at Tennessee, “I have a player who’s gonna get you a raise and not get you fired.”
Love thrived when he got the chance to start as a sophomore, flashing the arm strength and calm demeanor his high school coaches praised.
“We knew it was just a matter of time for him to get the opportunity,” Nixon says.
“He throws the ball so effortlessly. It comes out of his hand really well. I knew his mind, with the RPOs and the reads, he was going to be very good in that offense.”
But Love’s junior year turned inconsistent. Nearly his entire offense turned over along with new coach Gary Andersen. He was pressing, trying to make plays to make up for the lack of continuity and talent around him. He’d baby throws to the sidelines that would get picked, or force balls into coverage trying to prestidigitate.
His time in Green Bay hasn’t shown the same flaws. He still has that gunslinger streak, putting the ball in harm’s way at times. He threw late and high over the middle in the red zone against the Bills in the preseason after he threw a YOLO interception into double coverage.
But in his limited chances in four regular-season games, Love consistently found the right reads and made sound decisions. The interception in the Chiefs game was on a go route to Davante Adams in single coverage, not a bad decision, just a poor throw. Another interception against the Lions tipped off the hands of Amari Rodgers, and his second pick in Detroit came with heavy pressure in his face.
The drumbeat from the Packers, whether it’s head coach Matt LaFleur or even Aaron Rodgers, focuses on Love’s footwork and the idea of tying feet to eyes.
“Wherever your eyes are looking, your feet have to be pointing that direction,” Calhoun says, insisting Love can fix some inaccuracies.
“I use the analogy of throwing the ball down a hallway. Your feet have to be pointed down the hallway if your target is at the end of the hallway. You can’t have your feet pointing toward the closet and your eyes are looking down the hallway.”
This is something they rep in the offseason, and something new quarterbacks coach Tom Clements will no doubt emphasize.
“Eyes and front shoulder together. Any time his shoulders turn, his eyes are always in position to throw the ball. Because your shoulders and your feet are always tied together,” Calhoun explains.
The specter of Rodgers hangs over Love in myriad ways, but for Calhoun, there’s at least one thing he hopes Loves doesn’t learn from Rodgers. When Rodgers saw Brett Favre making crazy throws, he turned it into a challenge. He developed a training program to make the impossible not only possible but repped into a skill.
When announcers joke about Rodgers, or players like Patrick Mahomes, playing in a way a coach wouldn’t teach it, it’s for situations just like this. Love can’t get caught up trying to do everything he sees Rodgers attempt. Just like Rodgers needed to avoid forcing the ball into coverage the way Favre would try, Love can’t have too much belief in his own physical abilities and start playing outside his capabilities.
“It’s a little bit of a catch-22 because I always talk to Jordan about ‘You have to set your feet and drive the ball.’ But then he’s working out with Aaron in practice and you see Aaron off-balance, left foot, right foot, three quarters and you look at that and he’s making all those accurate throws,” Calhoun says.
“I tell Jordan, ‘He’s different. He’s an alien. We’re human beings man. We have to actually set our feet and step toward our target and we’re coming over the top with the ball … let Aaron throw the ball the way Aaron does. We gotta throw the ball the way Jordan does and how you’re successful with it.’ I think that will be our focus coming back.”
Calhoun and Love have already gone over a preliminary plan for how to address it this offseason: work on not only tying his feet and eyes together but making sure he’s in a position to drive the ball whenever he needs to.
“You have to set your feet. Even if it’s just for a quick second, just set ‘em, get a little bit of balance, and be able to drive the ball and throw the ball where you want to throw it,” says Calhoun.
And there’s a fine line to ride here for coaches with players like Love or Rodgers. They’re stallions. They need to be trained a certain amount to be ridden, but not so much that the natural gifts that make them special are removed. Both Love and Rodgers possess innate physical gifts that allow them to play off-platform and outside the play’s structure. They can make throws on the run other quarterbacks wouldn’t even attempt. They can drive balls into small windows and make throws into coverage with precision.
But Love can’t get so enamored with making a play that he loses sight of how he has to play to win.
“Aaron does what I call ‘slangin’ the ball,” Calhoun says.
“He doesn’t have to get full extension toward his target with his arm to make an accurate throw. Jordan does. So even if Jordan is off-platform, as long as he extends his arm all the way toward his target, he will be just fine. He sees Aaron just slinging the ball he thinks, ‘Aw man I can do that too, or I’m going to try to do that.’ And sometimes it doesn’t work out.”
It took Love a long time to get used to his body, to lock in on his game. He can’t try to take too much from his mentor to the point he gets outside of who he is. The coaches though, from Calhoun to Matt LaFleur, Tom Clements, and new offensive coordinator Adam Stenavich, have to embrace some of the chaotic plays because he’ll make a throw like the one Tyler Davis dropped against the Lions where he broke the pocket and floated the ball right after the defender into his receiver’s arm.
Or he’ll look off the simple completion on a fourth-down boot and find the tight end wide open in the middle of the field, as he did against the Bills. They can’t try to turn him into a football robot because that’s not why they drafted Love in the first place.
Love has to get reps for that to happen. Brian Gutekunst spoke last week about the importance of OTAs during the spring in the zenith of Rodgers discontent. After the Week 18 loss to the Lions, Allen Lazard mentioned how finally getting some snaps expedited Love’s evolution.
“He’s subtly been growing this entire year. Obviously he doesn’t get the snaps with Aaron being up and everything, but he’s grown tremendously throughout practice, week in and week out,” Lazard said.
For Love’s high school coach, that week in and week out consistency, the chance to show off his ability, provides a platform for Love to stamp the work he does on the other parts of his game.
“I think he’s going to work his tail off on his mechanics and X’s and O’s part, but I think the live reps are the main thing that’s going to help him continue to grow,” Nixon says.
When Love will get that chance is a beautiful mystery. We may find out this week that his chance to be the starter begins in earnest. It’s also possible Rodgers returns and Love will be left merely to once again focus on the most important thing he can: being the best version of Jordan Love for the Green Bay Packers, or whoever gives him his next chance.