A quarterback away.
When the New York Jets began their long offseason odyssey to motor into a Super Bowl window in 2023, that’s what one high-ranking team official described to Yahoo Sports as the last missing spark plug. The defense was young and promising, with uniquely dominant centerpieces in All-Pro defensive tackle Quinnen Williams and shutdown cornerback Sauce Gardner. The backfield had depth and talent, with Breece Hall striking a perfect balance with budding star wideout Garrett Wilson. Even with an offensive line in a state of flux, the right player lining up behind center could turn the key on everything immediately.
And for a moment, it appeared that Aaron Rodgers would.
But one game into the 2023 season, the loss of Rodgers has reintroduced a familiar quarterback void, rekindling the belief that this is not a team built to reach a February Super Bowl stage. So much so that the Jets’ Super Bowl odds went from 18-to-1 to 66-to-1 at BetMGM. And while that’s just a vantage through the betting peephole, it’s fair to say it’s representative of many options across the league. When Rodgers took a seat on the turf Monday, the most hopeful notions of the Jets’ atmospheric ceiling this season flattened out beside him. Along with them went the immense amount of work undertaken by general manager Joe Douglas and head coach Robert Saleh.
“Having that [Rodgers injury] be the end result of all that work, I’m just sick for them,” one general manager said Tuesday. “My heart breaks for Aaron. You don’t want to see that for anyone, but especially someone who gives all that energy to your whole building. … It especially sucks because he had a chance to get paid off in football — I don’t mean the money — [he had a chance] to ride off with something under his arm. They all did. Now I don’t know what they do.”
Naturally, that has been the dominant question orbiting the Jets since Tuesday. Fueled by ridiculously speculative notions of unicorn quarterbacks who could be added to the mix, opinions have run rampant about how the franchise should replace one aging icon with another. Tom Brady was immediately and prominently injected into the conversation, despite his in-motion purchase of an ownership stake in the Las Vegas Raiders. Matthew Stafford has been speculated, despite the Los Angeles Rams winning their opener over the Seattle Seahawks in eye-opening fashion and Stafford carrying an extinction-level salary-cap escalation if he were to be traded.
All of that worthless oversimplification has carried the same undertone: Surely, the Jets can’t just go with Zach Wilson. Not with how this team is built.
It’s undeniable that there is recent history to back up that notion. Wilson was abysmal 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 trading for Rodgers was putting someone in front of Wilson whom he could watch and learn from, safely out of the blast radius of criticism if anything went wrong with the offense in 2023. That’s no longer the case.
But there’s also more than 2022 to take into account when it comes to the makeup of this current Jets roster. This edition? It’s simply and unquestionably better than the one Wilson was expected to commandeer last season. The defense? Deeper, more talented and more experienced. The offense? Deeper, talented and more experienced. The health? For now, even with Rodgers’ devastating injury, it’s better. And the leadership? It’s exponentially more widespread than last season and far more capable of rallying around and carrying Wilson.
Even Wilson himself seems to have grown in just a few months behind Rodgers, showcasing not only the humility to take a back seat and learn but also a mindset to pick himself up and respond when he makes a mistake, rather than coming apart at the seams. Could that change? Could Wilson revert to his 2022 basement? Certainly. But the team’s brain trust doesn’t believe that’s the guarantee most are making it out to be.
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 gotten better across the board since last season.
“I don’t know why people are trying to put an obituary onto our team name,” Saleh said Tuesday. “Aaron is an unbelievable piece to this whole thing, and we love him, but I think there’s 52 other guys in the locker room, plus the 16 practice squad guys, that believe that we can do a hell of a lot of good things here. We’ve got a championship-caliber defense, we’ve got great skill guys on the offensive side of the ball, our O-line is going to going to gel and get better, but we’re excited about our group.
“We’ve worked hard over the last couple of years — players, coaches, scouts, GM — building a pretty cool organization, so there’s still a lot of faith in the locker room in the things that we can still accomplish this year. While the outside world can go ahead and write whatever story they want to write, there’s still the true story being written in this building.”
So what is there to be confident about? Well, the defense might 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 are unparalleled across the NFL. Conversely, the offense has budding stars at both running back and wide receiver, along with some solid and experienced starters who came to New York to play with Rodgers. And the backfield has two players in Hall and Dalvin Cook who legitimately could split 40 touches a game rushing and receiving — which would actually play into the strengths of the offensive line.
In a way, the Jets now have the look of a throwback team capable of pounding opponents with a running game and elite defense. Which, if anyone was paying attention through the haze of the Rodgers injury on Monday, was what they did to the Buffalo Bills in a 22-16 win. Rodgers played four snaps. That means the defense played effectively an entire game the same way it will now: with a style of fast, physical and borderline nasty that keeps the offense afloat and allows the Jets to beat a top-end opponent by 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! — on Monday and managed only 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 connecting on the big plays he has become accustomed to the past few years. And the reason he wasn’t connecting was that the Jets’ defense is simply that good. He was sacked five times and under relentless pressure against a unit that can even the scales between a great quarterback and a mediocre one.
If you don’t believe that, consider that while the Jets threw for only 117 yards on 22 attempts as a team, they averaged the same yards per attempt as the Bills (4.7) when incorporating sack yardage. 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’ve been an interception. Last year? This Jets team likely would’ve folded, if not gotten throttled. Zach Wilson would’ve hung his head. But none of that 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 top-end opponent and elite quarterback with Wilson under center, you missed what just happened. That’s exactly what the Jets did Monday. And they did it despite being rocked by Rodgers’ injury, with Wilson forced into a game after he took almost no first-team snaps in practice over the course of the week and had no idea whatsoever that he was going to be play.
There is an argument to be made that what unfolded against the Bills was the worst-case scenario out of the gate for the Jets. And they survived it. Despite losing Rodgers and playing essentially the entire game with Wilson. Despite being a quarterback away.
That suggestion might still be true for the Jets. But they’re also worlds 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 this could end up when the playoffs are hanging in the balance four months from now.