Aaron Rodgers did his best to stay in the background on Friday, even as reports emerged again about him seeking to return from injury to play for the New York Jets this season.
Rodgers did not throw the football at MetLife Stadium before the game, as he has done in other weeks. He mostly stayed out of the way during the game against the Miami Dolphins as well. He was wearing headphones and was active voice again with Jets coaches, but there was less commotion than usual, a team source said.
When the Jets defense was on the field, Rodgers could be seen sitting on the bench, often by himself, wearing one of those oversized sideline coats that NFL players wear when it’s cold. He would watch film of the previous series on a Microsoft Surface, and when the offense happened on the field, he would walk to the sideline and take his place, sometimes offering words of wisdom to quarterback Tim Boyle along the way.
“Aaron’s presence is peaceful and calming to me,” Boyle said. “He does a good job of painting a good picture of the quarterback.”
The picture the Jets painted against the Dolphins on Friday wasn’t pretty. They lost 34-13 and the Boyle-led offense remained a disastrous disaster incarnate. Hail Mary, choose six Boyle threw before halftime. The Jets are 4-7, on a four-game losing streak and are underdogs heading into Sunday’s home game against the Atlanta Falcons, which is 5-6.
There is little reason for hope, to believe that coach Robert Saleh will be able to avoid the ongoing collapse after a 4-3 start. At present, his record as Jets coach is 15-30. Joe Douglas’ record as GM: 24-53.
However, internally, the Jets are operating as if the entire system — Saleh, Douglas and even offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett — will return in 2024.
That’s because Aaron Rodgers is their lifeline.
Rodgers, who turns 40 on Saturday, may have more power than any other player in the NFL. It goes beyond the personnel impact he deployed this season, prompting Douglas to sign Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb, Billy Turner and Dalvin Cook — none of whom made any impact.
Owner Woody Johnson is almost certainly unhappy with the Jets’ offense this season — it ranks dead last in yardage, third-down conversions, red zone touchdowns and 30th in scoring — but Saleh and Douglas could dangle Rodgers’ carrots. They can say that his return will solve all their problems, even if it is ultimately an unreasonable expectation for a 40-year-old midfielder after undergoing Achilles surgery.
Rodgers has the power to guarantee their job security: If he says he’ll return only if this coaching staff remains intact, he’ll be locked in and safe. Johnson values Rodgers’ opinion and it would be surprising if he did not seek it.
He also has the potential to demand a coaching change, although no one expects that to happen at this point, especially if Hackett remains the primary play-caller.
Even as the Jets’ offense has faltered this season with Hackett at the helm, with play-calling tendencies that can generously be described as uncreative, Rodgers has maintained his faith in Hackett and the system he runs.
“I’ve won the MVP twice with the same offense, so I’m a believer,” Rodgers said on Nov. 14. “I’m a believer in the offense.”
However, Hackett did not call the plays in those Green Bay years, as Packers coach Matt LaFleur did. That distinction doesn’t matter in the end: The fact is that when Rodgers plays, he’s the primary play-caller, not Hackett. This crime was designed around the idea that he was the one running it. So all the issues the Jets have on offense, in their minds, come down to the fact that this is an offense that requires Rodgers’ brain And arm – an impossible standard that neither Zach Wilson nor Boyle would ever achieve.
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Rodgers also noted that “there are a lot of positions that need to be played better.” He’s right about that.
Lazard has the worst drop percentage of any wide receiver with at least 30 targets and was a healthy scratch in just 11 games after signing a $44 million contract. Cobb has three catches for 20 yards on 180 offensive snaps. Mecole Hardman was traded, Corey Davis retired and undrafted starters Xavier Gipson and Jason Brownlee didn’t have much of an impact. Running back Breece Hall got off to a fast start but has struggled of late, rushing for 182 yards on 70 carries over the last six games after rushing for 177 yards on 22 carries in Week 5.
The offensive line continues to be an issue as well. The Jets have started eight different sets in 11 games, which could reach nine in 12 games this week if Duane Brown returns.
Even star receiver Garrett Wilson has had his struggles recently.
So it all begs the question of what exactly Rodgers will get back if he is cleared to play again this season.
Rodgers is back in the team and, according to some reports, wants to train this week. It is unlikely that he will be exonerated, but his return to the facility is at least notable. Previously, he would fly out on weekends to games before returning to California to spend the week rehabilitating.
Left guard Lakin Tomlinson said he saw Rodgers receiving treatment at the Jets facility on Monday.
“Just seeing Aaron working as hard as he can, that’s motivation for me,” Tomlinson said.
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Rodgers said he would only return to the field if the Jets still had something to play for. He reportedly wants to return to training soon in some capacity and play on December 24 against the Washington Commanders. This is Week 16. The Jets’ playoff hopes will likely have evaporated by then.
He said last week on “The Pat McAfee Show” that the Jets’ struggles wouldn’t necessarily impact Rodgers’ rehabilitation.
“No, not at all,” Rodgers said. “I find those two to be mutually exclusive. The pace I do my rehab has been the same since the beginning – pushing it as hard as we can every day.
With the Jets continuing to struggle, it appears Rodgers now wants to make a comeback regardless of where they are in the playoffs. His motivation is mostly related to proving two types of skeptics wrong:
1. Who doubted his ability to come back from this injury.
2. Those who doubt Hackett’s crime can act.
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For Saleh and Douglas, Rodgers’ determination to play this season puts them in an interesting place.
On the one hand, if Rodgers comes back and looks like him, the Jets brass can hang their hat on real actual proof of how much better the team is (and will be) with him at quarterback. That would give them a positive morale boost heading into the season as well, especially since much of this offensive unit (including Lazard) will be back in 2024.
It can also backfire. What if Rodgers comes back and gets hurt again? Or what if Rodgers comes back and plays poorly?
“There’s a possibility it could happen (an injury),” Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “But there is also a chance that we will see something that has never been done before.”
On the flip side, if Rodgers doesn’t play this season — which is the most likely outcome — the possibility of him coming in to save the day in 2024 should be enough to keep Saleh, Douglas and Hackett around.
“I talk to Aaron all the time, just about life and football and all that good stuff. Until he is cleared by the doctors, all of this is a moot point and I haven’t gotten any indication otherwise,” Saleh said last week. He works hard. I think this shows his type of personality. I’ve said it before: He’s relentlessly trying to get back to this football team as quickly as possible.
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(Top images by Aaron Rodgers and Robert Saleh: Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
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