GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When you know, you know.
Unless, of course, you don’t know.
The Green Bay Packers believe that 2020 first-rounder Jordan Love is ready to take over as the starting quarterback -- replacing Aaron Rodgers, who is expected to leave Green Bay -- given general manager Brian Gutekunst’s proclamation that after three years as a backup, Love is “absolutely” ready.
At this point, after Love has started one game (and saw meaningful backup snaps in two others) in his three NFL seasons as Rodgers’ backup, that’s the most concrete information anyone on the outside can go on.
“Only if you’re there every day watching a kid does it become clear to you that somebody is making the jump to being a real player,” former NFL coach Todd Haley said. “We’re not in there, so we don’t see what he does with his time, how he prepares, what his notes are like, how he practices and how he works out.”
Or as fellow former coach Charlie Weis said: “The only guys that really know are the guys there. For all those analysts that try to act like they know, they’re all full of s---.”
“Why would they be OK with Aaron leaving if they didn’t have some confidence in who they have behind him?” Weis added. “I think the Packers are high on Jordan Love; higher than I would be, but I don’t know.”
Haley and Weis, currently analysts for SiriusXM NFL radio, have been in situations where they knew: Haley with Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys, and Weis with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
That’s not to say they predicted stardom for Romo and Brady before it happened; rather that they experienced something akin to what the Packers are going through, knowing what to look for as they groom Love to replace Rodgers in 2023.
HALEY JOINED THE Cowboys as receivers coach/passing game coordinator in 2004, a year after Romo came to the team as an undrafted free agent.
With Vinny Testaverde starting, Romo ran the Cowboys’ scout team in practice and his job was to emulate the opposing team’s starting quarterback week after week. Midway through the season, he played the role of Brett Favre to prepare the Cowboys’ defense to face the Packers.
“That was the moment that sticks out to me,” Haley recalled. “Brett Favre was his idol, so he’s fired up to go out there in practice, and he just destroyed our defense the entire week.”
Still, it would be nearly two more years before Romo became the Cowboys' starter when coach Bill Parcells replaced veteran Drew Bledsoe in October of 2006.
“It was always hard to go to Parcells and say something, but I think in one meeting I said, ‘How are we not playing this Romo kid?’” Haley said. “He increases our margin of error to win because he has mobility, and I haven’t seen anything that says he can’t throw the football. He’s smart, he’s into it, he studies, he works hard and all those things.
“It’s just through that process where you find out. It’s not a crystal ball where you know he’s going to be good; actually his career started out horribly.”
Indeed, Romo threw an interception on his first snap after he replaced Bledsoe midgame against the New York Giants.
“But he ultimately came around, and you saw some of the things that you saw on the practice field,” Haley said. “That’s why that whole process is critical to everything you do. These guys have to go through that and develop and learn until you trust him enough to say, ‘All right, he can play.’”
WEIS WAS THE Patriots' offensive coordinator when New England drafted Brady as a sixth-rounder in 2000 as a project, but three games into the 2001 season, Brady replaced an injured Bledsoe and never gave the job back.
Weis and Patriots coach Bill Belichick knew exactly how they were going to ease Brady in based on what they had seen from him over the previous year.
“People thought he couldn’t throw the ball down the field at first,” Weis said. “All we were doing is dinking and dunking, and playing conservative, and getting the ball out of his hands, and running the ball a whole bunch of times. And punting wasn’t the worst thing in the world for us because we had a solid defense.”
Slowly, they let Brady do more, and it led to an unlikely ride to Super Bowl XXXVI and a win over the St. Louis Rams, the first of Brady’s seven Super Bowl championships and five Super Bowl MVPs.
“As the year went on, he got better and better, and we got looser and looser with the volume of stuff we’d do, and we’d start throwing the ball down the field,” Weis said. “It wasn’t that he wasn’t capable of it; we’d seen him throw the ball downfield a whole bunch at practice. We were trying our best not to expose him too much in the beginning.
“I think that would be a good methodology for the Packers [with Love]. They’re solid in the run game; they don’t utilize it as much as they should utilize it. If you don’t come out and just spread the field and throw it on every down, you’re going to give this kid a chance to be successful.”
The Packers seem to agree.
“It'll be step by step,” Gutekunst said. “I think it's kind of like one of those things; I don't think you can just put it all on his plate right away, right?”
BEFORE THE PACKERS turned to Rodgers over Favre, they needed to see a moment when the light went on.
It happened for Rodgers in late November 2007 -- the 2005 first-round pick’s third season as a backup -- when Favre got knocked out of a game against the Cowboys. Rodgers nearly rallied the Packers to a comeback victory.
“I’ll tell you a big moment for [general manager] Ted Thompson and I with the development of Aaron Rodgers was against the Cowboys down there on 'Thursday Night Football,'” then-Packers coach Mike McCarthy said recently. “Brett was hurt early in the game, and I think we were behind maybe two scores at that point when Aaron went in.
“It was just one of those moments. I’ve been there before with Matt Hasselbeck, Aaron Brooks, and when you hand them the ball and tell them the expectation, it was clear we weren’t changing. We didn’t pull back on the game plan, and Aaron went in there and played extremely well that night.”
It was all they needed to see.
“I do recall on the plane ride home, Ted and I talking about his performance, we knew then that he was ready,” McCarthy said. “So that was kind of a moment for us. But the reality of it is, you see it every day in practice. The way Aaron practiced -- ask our defensive players from '06 and '07, and they’ll tell you that -- everybody knew that he had a chance to be a great player.”
Perhaps that’s how the current Packers brass felt about Love when they left Philadelphia last season.
Love finished the Week 12 game against the Eagles after Rodgers suffered a rib injury in the third quarter and -- just like Rodgers did in Dallas 15 years before -- mounted a comeback. Love led a pair of scoring drives with a touchdown and a field goal. He was far more productive in his two series against the Eagles than in four quarters of his only start, a 13-7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2021.
"I felt a lot more prepared," Love said of his 2022 outing. "It just comes down to reps, getting those reps and being comfortable executing those plays, so the more reps I can get, the more I can get in those situations, the more comfortable I’ll be."
WHEN LOVE WAS drafted in 2020, he seemed to fit the mold of the rising star quarterbacks of the time -- Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson -- in terms of his combination of arm strength and mobility.
“It was one of the things, no doubt,” Gutekunst said, when asked after the draft if he was impressed with Love’s mobility. “He’s a very good athlete, very loose, fluid athlete, and his ability to create second chances when things break down was one of the things that drew us to him.”
LaFleur believes Love has continued to develop on the right track.
"I have complete confidence in his ability, but also just his approach," LaFleur said after the season. "It’s been fun to watch him mature as a football player, as a man, over the course of these last three years. And just the way he walks around the building, his approach, his urgency, his fundamentals, everything that goes into being a quarterback, I think we’ve seen significant growth from him.
"So I’m definitely excited about where he could be. But like I said, we’ve got a lot of confidence in him and his ability moving forward."
Still, even if Love thinks he’s ready, chances are he’s not.
“I thought I was ready,” Hasselbeck said, “and I wasn’t ready.”
Hasselbeck, who spent 17 seasons as an NFL quarterback and is now an analyst for ESPN, had the added challenge of changing teams before he became a starter. He spent three years with the Packers -- one on the practice squad and two as Favre’s backup -- before the Seattle Seahawks traded for him in 2000.
“One thing I do know: It’s easier if you’re taking over for the team that you’re already on,” Hasselbeck said.
He added that it’s important for a new quarterback to know the organization believes he’s ready, which could be why Gutekunst & Co. have been so adamant in their backing of Love.
“Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy were sure that Aaron Rodgers was ready at one point,” Hasselbeck said. “[Chiefs coach] Andy Reid & Co. were sure that Patrick Mahomes was ready at one point. I would just say that it’s not from game film. It’s about each and every day, and it’s things that maybe the player himself doesn’t even realize. It could be something you did in practice or something you didn’t do, a tough situation and you didn’t flinch. You just kinda know.
“I think some people think something like that might have happened with Jordan Love at this point.”
That may even include Rodgers.
“Jordan’s going to be a great player,” Rodgers said on "The Pat McAfee Show." “He’s a f---ing great kid. He had a really good year this year, getting better on the look team. He’s got a bright future in front of him.”