Evaluating the first NFL start for Packers QB Jordan Love

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Back in August, Packers Wire dug deep into Jordan Love’s first starting action during the preseason. He threw 17 passes before departing at the half. The exercise revealed a quarterback with the right process on most dropbacks but some issues with decisiveness and accuracy. It was especially interesting to go back through the evaluation now, after watching all of his passing plays from his first NFL start on Sunday in Kansas City.

A fair evaluation of Love this time around requires the acknowledgment of many contributing factors. Remember, Love was unexpectedly thrust into the starting job on Wednesday. He had previously played in two preseason games and thrown only seven regular-season passes in a year and a half in the NFL. He made his first start on the road in one of the NFL’s tough environments. The Chiefs defense has struggled for much of 2021, but defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is among the most experienced and accomplished playcallers in football, and he had a terrific plan. And coach Matt LaFleur wasn’t happy with the way he called the game against Spagnuolo’s plan.

Acknowledging these factors isn’t meant to absolve Love. He readily admitted he didn’t play well enough. No one is claiming he played well against the Chiefs. But dismissing the factors makes a quality assessment impossible.

As any good coach would do, LaFleur took the blame for the performance while also praising his young quarterback. If nothing else, LaFleur sees real promise in Love and wasn’t willing to let him get roasted publicly without a rebuttal.

“The moment wasn’t too big for him. I thought he showed a great resiliency, and that’s stuff that you can’t coach. Now, we can coach a lot of the other things,” LaFleur said Monday.

To get a better sense of the totality of the performance, we watched all the passing plays from Love in Kansas City. By the end, a clear picture formed. We summarized the exercise instead of detailing every play.

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

– Early on, the Chiefs disrupted the pocket with only four rushers, especially against Billy Turner on the right side, and Love didn’t handle the pressure well. It provided a clear path forward for Spagnuolo: blitz the young quarterback.

– An example of how things went wrong: On 3rd-and-8 late in the first quarter, the Packers had a screen set up for Aaron Jones. Frank Clark timed up the snap and blew up the play. Clark had a run free at Love as he was catching the snap, so Love had to throw high to even get the ball out. If this play isn’t disrupted by Clark, it might have been a touchdown.

– By our count, Love faced a free (or unblocked) pass-rusher on 14 of his 34 passing attempts. Several times, the free rusher applied immediate pressure and forced Love to throw early. Several other times, the free rusher disrupted what could have been a big play, including a potential touchdown to Davante Adams. Love’s touchdown pass to Allen Lazard came with a free rusher in his face immediately. Quarterbacks sometimes have to navigate around an unblocked player, but not on over 40 percent of dropbacks. The pass pro was overwhelmed. There is no question about it.

– By our count, Love made the right read but threw inaccurately on seven different pass attempts, including on his interception. Any number of factors could be at play here. Some jitters early and the consistent pressure were certainly part of the problem, but Love’s accuracy has been under the microscope since the draft process. This is an area he must improve. At times, Love’s footwork looked sloppy or jumpy or sped up, but it’s impossible to know how the Packers teach it on certain plays.

– Love threw 14 passes to Davante Adams but completed only six for 42 yards. Leaning on his All-Pro receiver was smart, but the timing between the two was off. And at least half of the attempts came when Love was under intense pressure. He received several opportunities with one-on-one coverage on Adams against the blitz, but he had to throw low-percentage throws on vertical routes. Love and Adams, who returned for only one full practice last week, have played together sparingly.

– Another example of how things went wrong: On 1st-and-10 with 6:57 left in the fourth quarter, Adams won his route and got a yard or two behind one-on-one coverage, and Love saw it, but Frank Clark swooped inside on a stunt untouched and smacked Love just as he was getting to the top of his drop. The throw sailed wide and out of bounds. A free rusher killed what should have been a touchdown (for the second time).

– The insistence on long-developing plays, as LaFleur mentioned post-game, was real. It was clear the Packers wanted badly to create a big play to calm the Chiefs’ blitzes. But it was the wrong approach. More plays in the quick game attacking the middle were needed against zero blitzes. Love just didn’t have time to let plays develop down the field, even if the Packers had favorable matchups.

– As is the case with Aaron Rodgers, Love’s best throws came on time and in rhythm from the pocket. Get to the top of the drop, and let it rip. His completions to Adams and Marquez Valdes-Scantling on back-to-back throws in the fourth quarter represented his best work.

– He was lucky to only throw one interception. Tyrann Mathieu missed a golden chance at a potential pick-six. Love threw late on an out route and Mathieu jumped it. The throw ended up in a completion, somehow, but it was probably Love’s worst decision of the entire night. This could have been the big mistake that all young quarterbacks need to avoid.

– Love showed his athleticism escaping bad situations several times. As he settled in, he started feeling pressure better and finding escape routes. Ideally, you want a quarterback to beat a blitz with his mind and arm, but having the athleticism to escape is a nice backup plan for a young player.

So how should we evaluate a young quarterback over one game in a situation like this? I’m honestly not sure. Some of the lingering accuracy issues are concerning, but the guess here is that LaFleur and the Packers offensive staff will give Love a high grade for decision-making with the ball, at least in terms of reading coverage and throwing to the right player. And it’s tempting to simply throw out the 14 passing plays in which he was dealing with a free rusher. No quarterback with Love’s level of experience should be expected to handle an onslaught of free rushers. The protection issues were overwhelming.

It was one game, with a lot of mitigating factors affecting both the processes and the result. Love’s first start will be easy to dismiss, and easy to overvalue, both in the short and long term. The outside doesn’t see what the Packers get to see at practice or in the meeting rooms, so the best path forward after Sunday’s game is probably patience, at least until a greater sample size emerges. It’s not a fun or provocative or revealing evaluation, but it’s likely the fairest to the player and team.

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