For a brief moment on Thursday, Aaron Rodgers and the Jets showed everyone what rejuvenation looks like.
After some tough opening series during a struggle on the Jets’ first day of training camp, Rodgers fired the ball to second year wide receiver Garrett Wilson on a fast lane. Wilson hauled in the pass, briefly stumbled and then darted down the sideline for a healthy gain, drawing cheers from his energized teammates.
It was the kind of offensive dynamism the Jets sorely lacked for years as the team struggled to find a long-term answer at halfback, the most important position in the game. The addition of Brett Favre in 2008 failed to secure a playoff appearance, and early draft picks after him brought mixed results.
But the arrival of Rodgers, a four-time Most Valuable Player, brings high expectations this season – and a level of unheard-of enthusiasm surrounding a team whose name has been synonymous with ineptitude for over a decade.
“There’s a lot of positivity around here, which I think is good,” Rodgers said after practice.
After lengthy negotiations, the Jets agreed to acquire Rodgers in a trade from the Green Bay Packers on April 24, adding a level of spectacle the team missed. The league has scheduled the Jets for five primetime matchups this season, versus one appearance in 2022, including a Week 1 contest against the Buffalo Bills on “Monday Night Football.” Film crews from HBO’s “Hard Knocks” documentary series will follow the crew throughout the season, and the Jets will headline the first NFL Black Friday game on Amazon.
The attention is very far from the expectations before the last season. The Jets got off to a surprising 6-3 start behind a highly rated defense before the quarterback’s shaky play derailed new hopes. Zach Wilson, the second overall pick in 2021, was benched in favor of backup quarterback Mike White, and the team went 1-7 to close out the season.
By adding Rodgers, the Jets sought to accelerate an organizational rebuild. The team has developed young talent, including offensive and defensive rookie of the year Garrett Wilson and cornerback Sauce Gardner.
“When you have so many great players on rookie deals, it’s really exciting to know that you can do something, you have a good window,” said Rodgers. “It’s not just a one-year thing where you can be competitive, which is fun.”
As players reported back to camp Wednesday, some spoke of reaching the Super Bowl, a lofty goal for a franchise that last made the postseason in 2010.
“Bringing a guy like him into the building just excites everybody in general, because the resume that he has, the character that he is, the guy that he is, it brings a spark to everybody,” said defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, who said he has bombarded Rodgers with questions about the best defensive players he’s ever faced.
But even with the arrival of Rodgers, there are reasons for any optimism to be tempered.
Rodgers, who turns 40 in December, faces the clock of football’s age: few quarterbacks – aside from Tom Brady – have excelled at this stage in their careers. And after winning back-to-back MVP honors in 2020 and 2021, Rodgers had the worst season of his career as a full-time starter, posting his second-highest interceptions total and his lowest quarterback rating since 2008.
Rodgers brings more than just a Hall of Fame resume to the Jets. He drew criticism in 2021 for denouncing the league’s Covid-19 vaccination policy after testing positive for the coronavirus. Despite claiming prior to the season that he had been “immunised” against the virus, Rodgers was fined for violating league Covid-19 protocols for unvaccinated players by attending a Halloween party.
The end of Rodgers’ tenure at Green Bay was also marred by his fights with coaches and team management over lineups and play decisions, as well as his public criticism of the Packers’ young receivers.
So far, he said, he is happy with his new team.
“A lot of fun things have happened in this period of my life and I’m enjoying every minute of it,” he said on Thursday.
For their part, the Jets appear to have tried to build the team in Rodgers’ image. They’ve got Garrett Wilson, the kind of explosive young wide receiver Rodgers complained about losing in Green Bay. They brought in some of Rodgers’ friends and former Packers teammates, including receivers Randall Cobb and Allen Lazard and forward Billy Turner, and hired Nathaniel Hackett, Rodgers’ offensive coordinator from 2019 to 2021, in the same role.
Lazard, who played five seasons with Rodgers in Green Bay and signed with the Jets in March, thinks he can help some of the team’s younger receivers, acknowledging that “Aaron Rodgers’ offense” can present a learning curve.
“When he’s on the field, the whole playbook is open at any time,” Lazard said of Rodgers. “Even during the first day of practice, he might pull a signal, do something we never talked about.”
It certainly won’t be what the Jets are used to.