That’s why we shouldn’t be so quick to assume the Jets are doomed without Aaron Rodgers

By | September 14, 2023

One quarterback away.

As the New York Jets began their long offseason odyssey to get into a Super Bowl window in 2023, this is what a high-ranking team official described to Yahoo Sports as the final missing spark plug. The defense was young and promising, with uniquely dominant centers in All-Pro defensive tackle Quinnen Williams and cornerback Sauce Gardner. The backfield had depth and talent, with Breece Hall finding a perfect balance with budding star Garrett Wilson. Even with an ever-changing offensive line, the right player behind center could turn the key on everything immediately.

And for a moment it looked like Aaron Rodgers would.

But one game into the 2023 season, the loss of Rodgers reintroduced a familiar quarterback void, reigniting the belief that this is not a team built to reach the Super Bowl stage in February. So much so that the Jets’ Super Bowl odds went from 18-1 to 66-1 at BetMGM. And even if it’s just an advantage through the betting peephole, it’s fair to say that it’s representative of many options across the league. When Rodgers sat on the field Monday, the most promising ideas about the Jets’ atmosphere this season fell flat next to him. Along with them went the immense work undertaken by general manager Joe Douglas and coach Robert Saleh.

“Have that [Rodgers injury] be the end result of all that work, I’m just sick of them,” one general manager said Tuesday. “My heart breaks for Aaron. You don’t want to see that for anyone, but especially for someone who gives all that energy to your entire building. … It particularly sucks because he had the chance to be paid off in football – I don’t mean money – [he had a chance] leave with something under your arm. Everyone did it. Now I don’t know what they do.”

Naturally, that’s been the dominant question orbiting the Jets since Tuesday. Fueled by ridiculously speculative notions about unicorn quarterbacks who might be added to the mix, opinions are rampant about how the franchise should replace one aging icon with another. Tom Brady was immediately and prominently brought into the conversation, despite his impending purchase of an ownership stake in the Las Vegas Raiders. Matthew Stafford was speculated, despite the Los Angeles Rams winning their first game against the Seattle Seahawks in eye-opening fashion and Stafford would bring salary cap escalation to extinction level if he were traded.

All that unnecessary oversimplification had the same undercurrent: Surely, the Jets can’t just go with Zach Wilson. Not with how this team is built.

It is undeniable that there is recent history to support this notion. Wilson was terrible in 2022 to the point of losing the locker room and sending the brain trust looking for his replacement. He seemed mentally broken and in need of a total reset. And the added value of the trade for Rodgers was that it gave Wilson someone to watch and learn from, safe from the blast radius of criticism if something went wrong with the offense in 2023. That’s no longer the case.

But there’s even more than 2022 to take into account when it comes to the makeup of the Jets’ current roster. This edition? It’s simply and unquestionably better than what Wilson was expected to commandeer last season. The defence? Deeper, more talented and more experienced. The crime? Deeper, talented and more experienced. Health? For now, despite Rodgers’ devastating injury, things are better. And the management? He is exponentially more spread out than last season and much more capable of rallying and carrying Wilson.

Wilson himself also seems to have grown in just a few months behind Rodgers, demonstrating not only the humility to sit back and learn, but also a mentality capable of getting back up and responding when he makes a mistake, rather than collapsing. . Could things change? Could Wilson return to his basement in 2022? Certainly. But the team’s brain trust doesn’t believe this is the guarantee many believe it to be.

The Jets defense is loaded with players like Quinton Jefferson, who could help the team win a lot of wins this season.  Just like they did on Monday.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
The Jets defense is loaded with players like Quinton Jefferson, who could help the team win a lot of wins this season. Just like they did on Monday. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

There’s a reason Saleh took exception to everyone writing off the Jets after Rodgers went down. It’s because he knows this team has improved across the board from last season.

“I don’t know why people are trying to put an obituary on our team name,” Saleh said Tuesday. “Aaron is an incredible piece in this whole thing, and we love him, but I think there are 52 other guys in the locker room, plus the 16 guys on the practice squad, who believe we can do a lot of good things here. We have a championship-caliber defense, we have high-skill guys on the offensive side of the ball, our O-line is going to solidify and get better, but we’re excited about our group.

“We’ve worked hard the last couple of years – players, coaches, scouts, GM – building a pretty cool organization, so there’s still a lot of confidence in the locker room in the things we can still accomplish this year. While the outside world can go ahead and write whatever story they want, there is still real history being written in this building.”

So what is there to be sure of? Well, the defense may very well be the best in the league. There is at least one exceptional talent at every level, not to mention a good mix of youth and experience. The quality and depth of the defensive line is unmatched throughout the NFL. Instead, the offense has budding stars at both running backs and wide receivers, along with some solid, experienced starters who came to New York to play with Rodgers. And the backfield has two players, Hall and Dalvin Cook, who could legitimately split 40 touches in a game running and receiving, which would actually play to the strengths of the offensive line.

In some ways, the Jets now look like a throwback team capable of beating opponents with an elite running game and defense. Which, if anyone was paying attention in the fog of Rodgers’ injury on Monday, is what they did to the Buffalo Bills with a 22-16 win. Rodgers played four snap. That means the defense effectively played an entire game the same way it will now: with a fast, physical, and borderline nasty style that keeps the offense afloat and allows the Jets to beat a high-level opponent running the football, playing good special teams, and keeping Wilson from getting into an ill-advised shootout.

Consider that Josh Allen threw the ball 41 times: 41! — Monday and managed just 236 passing yards. As much as everyone was focused on his reckless play and turnovers, part of the reason he slipped into that mode was that he wasn’t in tune with the big plays he had become accustomed to in recent years. And the reason he wasn’t connecting was because the Jets defense was just that good. He’s been sacked five times and under relentless pressure against a unit that can even the balance between a great quarterback and a mediocre one.

If you don’t believe it, consider that while the Jets threw for just 117 yards on 22 attempts as a team, they averaged the same yards per attempt as the Bills (4.7) when incorporating sack yards. The difference for Wilson was that he was protected by a running game that churned out 172 yards and a wideout in Garrett Wilson who made a spectacular play in the end zone on a touchdown catch that could have been an interception. Last year? This Jets team probably would have folded if they hadn’t been throttled. Zach Wilson would put his head down. But none of this happened.

Go back and watch Monday’s game again. For those who want to argue that the Jets can’t win a game against a high-end opponent and an elite quarterback with Wilson under center, you missed what just happened. That’s exactly what the Jets did on Monday. And they did so despite being rocked by Rodgers’ injury, with Wilson forced to play after taking almost no first-team snaps in training over the course of the week and having no idea he would play.

There’s an argument to be made that what unfolded against the Bills was a worst-case scenario for the Jets. And they survived. Despite losing Rodgers and playing practically the entire game with Wilson. Despite being one quarterback away.

This tip could still be true for the Jets. But they’re also much better across the board as a team. And if Wilson can improve even modestly with all the help around him, there’s no telling where he might end up when the playoffs hang in the balance in four months.

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