Can Jake Luton Shock The NFL World?
By Martin Rogers
Jake Luton has overcome a lot to make it to his first road game as a starting quarterback in the National Football League. There was a detour through Ventura Community College. A terrifying spine injury suffered at Oregon State. Then, after being drafted in the sixth round, no preseason in which to prove himself as an untested rookie.
Yet Luton, 24, has battled through and will be under center for the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday. The reward for all his strife and struggle? A showdown with quarterbacking icon Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, in a game billed as a monumental mismatch.
If that sounds like a punishment more than a prize, it is a reminder: it’s not easy getting to the NFL, and it sure doesn’t get any cushier once you arrive.
The concept of ‘any given Sunday’ applies this year in the NFL more than any other, but according to the oddsmakers, there is not a lot of doubt about this one. The 6-2 Packers, seeking to remain at least tied for the best record in the NFC, are an overwhelming 13.5 point favorite, and few would disagree with that assessment. FiveThirtyEight gives Jacksonville just a seven percent chance of winning.
But don’t expect Luton to be fazed.
"He has been through so much adversity that it will just motivate him even more," Brandon Carson, Luton’s former high school coach at Marysville-Pilchuck, just north of Seattle, told me in a telephone conversation this week. "He is used to doing things beyond what people expect. It will be a great moment for him, going to Lambeau, playing against Rodgers, but he won’t be overawed by it. That’s not him."
Jacksonville has lost seven straight after winning its season opener, yet Luton’s introduction last week following an injury to Gardner Minshew provided a significant ray of optimism. Within the opening minute, he uncorked a pearl of a throw that sent D.J. Chark on his way to a 73-yard touchdown. The rookie QB finished with 304 passing yards as the Jags slipped to a 27-25 defeat.
However, Rodgers and the Packers will be a different proposition. Luton is well aware of the optics of an unknown rookie on a struggling team up against one of the best to ever play the position, but he is determined to hold his own.
"It's pretty surreal," Luton said. "(Rodgers) is a guy I have a lot of respect for, was a big fan of him growing up and a huge fan of his game. A lot of things that he does, no one else really can do. He's a wizard with the football in a lot of ways. It'll be really exciting to get out there and get to play ball against him."
Don’t expect any slacking from the Packers when things kickoff at 1 p.m. ET Sunday on FOX. Rodgers has been on a mission all season long, perhaps having had a fire lit under him by the team’s acquisition of presumptive long-term replacement Jordan Love through the draft.
The Packers QB is a bona fide contender in an MVP race currently being led by Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes. While Green Bay currently sits atop the NFC North, the team has had to deal with numerous injuries, which has led to a number of new faces taking on bigger roles this season.
"We have still got a little bit to learn," Rodgers told reporters this week. "I feel good about our guys and feel good about being tested with division games down the stretch. We have got to take care of business and find our identity. Because of the lack of fans and the injuries we’ve had we are figuring out exactly who we are. We are not going to relax and get complacent."
It is at this point where it’s time for me to make an admission. While I enjoy the type of mouthwatering games between rival league leaders or a pair of undefeated teams the most, I also have a soft spot for matchups that seem to point in one direction only, like this one.
In some ways, it is the football version of a lottery ticket. The chances are firmly stacked towards the likelihood that Green Bay will simply be too good, too strong, and that this will be the routine collection of another W.
Yet there is always the "what-if" factor. What if the unthinkable happens? What if reason and logic and statistics and precedent are all tossed out the window? What if the payoff for your optimism is getting to see an upset for the ages?
You can apply the same process to Luton. What if this is the start of a long and fruitful career in the NFL? In that sense, Sunday’s game would be akin to seeing a hit band before they ever made it big, which, as any music fan will tell you, is about as good as it gets.
If the visitors do somehow keep themselves in contention and Luton has a chance to shine down the stretch, then Jacksonville should feel good about their rookie QB moving forward.
Luton has drawn strong reviews from head coach Doug Marrone and his teammates for his calm, poised demeanor. That’s nothing new, according to Carson.
"Jake was always that way," Carson added. "He is not a rah-rah guy, he just gets out there and leads by example. He loves the game and he appreciates its history. He will understand the significance of where he is and who he is playing against … but it will lift him, not scare him."