Did that really just happen?!? Barnwell on what's next for the Jets and Aaron Rodgers
It's the hope that kills you.
The same Jets fans who welcomed Aaron Rodgers to New York with a roar as he ran onto the field Monday evening were silenced after a grand total of four snaps. While we're waiting for official confirmation of the quarterback's condition, the Jets fear Rodgers tore his left Achilles tendon in Monday night's victory over the Buffalo Bills, an injury that would end his season. New York coach Robert Saleh's thousand-yard stare at the prospect of Zach Wilson taking over again at quarterback said it all: Six months of joy and excitement dissipated in a matter of moments.
As Saleh suggested Monday night, while there's still the formality of an MRI on Tuesday, players who are diagnosed with a torn Achilles on the field almost invariably have the injury confirmed the following day. Rodgers himself seemed to realize he had suffered the tear on the field, as he glumly shook his head toward the sideline and sat down before being helped to the locker room.
With the news of his injury, there are naturally a handful of questions that need to be addressed. None will be a particularly easy read for Jets fans, but the fallout from this impacts the entire NFL. Let's rip off the Band-Aid and start with the most painful one:
Jump to a question:
Can the Jets still be a playoff team?
What are their 2024 Super Bowl chances?
Are there QBs available on the market?
How does this impact the trade with GB?
How does the AFC playoff picture look now?
Should the Jets have been more wary?
Did the O-line put Rodgers at risk?
Does the Rodgers injury take the Jets out of the championship picture in 2023?
Realistically, yes. We saw a version of this team with Wilson and a great defense fail to come close to competing for a playoff berth last season, when they needed five victories over backup quarterbacks to make it to 7-10. Barring some stunning development from Wilson as the season goes along that we didn't see during Monday night or the arrival of a totally unexpected solution, the Jets can't expect to compete with the Bills, Bengals, Chiefs and other top teams in the AFC through a full season and into a postseason run.
Remember: All the concerns some of us had about this team with Rodgers still apply with Wilson. As good as the defense was last season, it was the healthiest unit in football, and that's unlikely to recur. (New York already has lost starting safety Chuck Clark for the campaign, and it didn't have top edge rusher Carl Lawson for the Bills game.)
The offensive line is a major question mark, as is O-coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. The Jets play a brutal schedule to start the season and face the league's fourth-toughest slate in total, per ESPN's Football Power Index. Those questions aren't going away.
Can the Jets still be a playoff team in 2023?
Yes! They still have plenty to play for with 16 games remaining. Wilson wasn't good last year, and he doesn't project to be much better this season, but the Jets have a formula they could at least try to rely upon in the hopes of winning games over the remainder of the campaign. We saw that formula in play Monday night.
That starts with the defense, which still projects to be stellar even with less injury luck in 2023. While Saleh's group was one of the league's best a season ago, there was one thing conspicuously lacking: turnovers. The Jets forced 16 takeaways last year, which ranked 29th and seemed totally out of line with everything else they were able to accomplish. We saw them force four Josh Allen turnovers in the Buffalo game, and they'll probably need the defense to create takeaways at a top-10 rate if they want to qualify for the postseason in the AFC. The offense will need the other parts of the roster to score touchdowns, as the Jets did in Week 1 when Xavier Gipson took a punt return to the house in overtime to seal the dramatic victory.
On offense, the one thing that did go right for the Jets on Monday might prove to be their difference-maker. Breece Hall was the highlight of the evening, as the promising second-year running back returned from a torn ACL in his right knee and showed few signs of wear from the injury. Hall started the contest with a 26-yard run, added an 83-yard carry in the second quarter and finished with 10 carries for 127 yards. He only played 17 offensive snaps, but his performance has to be considered an auspicious marker of where he stands upon returning from injury.
Hall missed most of last season, so the hope will have to be that his presence might help the Jets if they transition into more of a run-first team. Dalvin Cook had a quiet day in his New York debut, but having two starting-caliber backs might be a blessing in disguise. It's now on Hackett, who came to the Jets after a disastrous season in Denver as part of Gang Green's attempt to woo Rodgers, to build that run game and a viable complementary play-action passing attack.
Are there quarterbacks on the market who could compete with Wilson?
As you can probably understand, there aren't many good quarterbacks available in the free-agent market or hiding on the bottom of their teams' benches. It's one thing to need a quarterback at the trade deadline, when teams are already out of the playoff picture and can start thinking about 2024. This is Week 2. Every team is still in the playoff hunt. None is going to want to trade its starting passer or an experienced veteran.
With Rodgers likely to return in 2024, the Jets aren't going to trade away future first-round picks to go get a quarterback for 2023. The logical place for them to look first is in the free-agent market, where they could bring in a veteran to push Wilson. The only other quarterback on the roster is practice-squad passer Tim Boyle, who has a 54.5 career passer rating on 106 pass attempts.
A logical free agent to consider would be Joe Flacco, who spent the 2020 to 2022 seasons on New York's roster. The offense has changed with Hackett taking over for Mike LaFleur, so Flacco wouldn't be able to step right in, but he would at least be familiar with the faces in the building. Chris Streveler, who was the fourth quarterback on the roster and briefly played late in last season's loss to the Jaguars, is also on the open market.
Several starters from 2022 (or years past) are out of football and haven't yet retired. They wouldn't exactly be Rodgers-level additions, but they still might represent an upgrade on Wilson, especially if the running game and defense are playing at a high level.
The most obvious candidate is Carson Wentz, who hasn't signed or publicly received much interest after being released by the Commanders in February. He has played his way off three teams in three years without leaving many allies in Philadelphia, Indianapolis or Washington, but he still has an NFL-caliber arm and is two years removed from commanding meaningful draft capital in a pair of deals. Wentz's 34.4 QBR was four points worse than the mark Wilson posted a year ago, but Wentz had a 60.6 figure in a topsy-turvy stint with the Colts two years ago.
Matt Ryan took over for Wentz last season and quickly lost the job in Indianapolis, but an interested party might chalk up some of the blame to porous offensive line play and ownership interference in decision-making. Ryan is now working for CBS, but he conspicuously did not file retirement papers with the league. He might not have filed that paperwork strictly to collect $12 million that was guaranteed from the Colts in 2023, but the Jets would struggle to find someone with his experience.
Ryan and Wentz are the two 2022 starters available in free agency. The Jets might otherwise consider second- and third-stringers from a season ago, a group that includes Nick Foles, Colt McCoy, Chase Daniel and Mike Glennon. Like Wentz, Foles was part of the Eagles organization during Jets general manager Joe Douglas' time in Philadelphia, although Douglas wasn't there when Foles was originally drafted by coach Andy Reid in 2012.
The pie-in-the-sky names probably aren't happening for various reasons. Tom Brady is no longer under NFL contract after his contract voided with the Buccaneers, but the legendary quarterback has insisted his second retirement is final. He also has attempted to become a minority owner of the Raiders, and if that transaction has been consummated, it's difficult to imagine the league letting the owner of one team play for another. He also might balk at the idea of lining up in the same division as the Patriots, who just announced that they're inducting the 46-year-old quarterback into their Hall of Fame next year.
Philip Rivers has popped up repeatedly when teams have had openings since last year -- the 49ers reportedly were lining him up as a contingency plan if they needed a starting quarterback for the Super Bowl a year ago -- but it's difficult to fathom that the 41-year-old would be an upper-echelon quarterback after more than two full seasons out of football.
Most of the quarterbacks from Hackett's past are either out of football or already rostered. One exception is Brett Rypien, who was the backup behind Russell Wilson in Denver last season and is now on the Rams' practice squad. PJ Walker, John Wolford and David Blough are on various practice squads across the league and could be acquired for very little if the Jets so desire.
Most teams don't have a spare quarterback for New York to acquire via trade, either. Backups such as Jameis Winston and Sam Darnold are needed for depth on the Saints and 49ers, respectively. One realistic possibility might be Case Keenum, who is essentially serving as a player-coach on the Texans. He might very well prefer to stay there -- and the Texans would value having him around to help mentor No. 2 overall pick C.J. Stroud -- but the chance to play meaningful reps for a playoff contender one final time could appeal to the 35-year-old.
All of this speculation might be for naught. If anyone still has faith in Wilson, it's likely Douglas and Saleh, the two people who drafted him with the No. 2 overall pick in 2021. While the hopes that he will turn into this team's quarterback of the future have faded, it's notable that the Jets didn't make a more significant addition to play behind Rodgers this offseason. In Monday's postgame news conference, Saleh said Wilson will be the new QB1 moving forward. Saleh hasn't always been entirely truthful in his comments about Wilson, but I suspect the Jets are willing to convince themselves Wilson is better than any other realistic option available to them.
Which team's playoff chances increase by the Jets getting weaker?
Nobody wants to see a player suffer a season-ending injury, but there are teams that are going to be in better shape now that the Jets don't have the same caliber of quarterback on their roster. A cutthroat AFC that has 14 teams with playoff aspirations is going to feel greater about its collective chances of beating the Jets, even if New York's defense plays at a high level.
The obvious candidate for the team best-positioned to get a boost from the Rodgers injury was the one facing the Jets on Monday night. The Bills saw the Chiefs lose Thursday and the Bengals get blown out by the Browns on Sunday. The Ravens won but lost a handful of starters in the process. The Chargers lost. When Rodgers went down for the season, it felt like the Bills were entering the driver's seat in the AFC.
Instead, Buffalo turned the ball over four times in a sloppy performance and lost to the Wilson-led Jets for the second consecutive season. Now, the team that seems like it benefited the most from Week 1 is the Dolphins, who produced a brilliant offensive performance in their win over the Chargers and had virtually every other significant contender in the AFC lose. The Fins' chances of making it to the postseason, given an early victory and no Rodgers in the AFC East, must have grown dramatically from where they stood before Week 1.
Should the Jets have been wary that Rodgers would suffer a serious injury?
Not really. A torn Achilles tendon is an absolute freak occurrence. The injury came on wet turf as a product of steady rain in the New York area before the game. Achilles injuries have been observed to happen more often on turf than they do on natural grass, but I don't think anybody could have predicted Rodgers would suffer a season-ending injury before the end of his first quarter with New York.
At the same time, the idea that Rodgers is more susceptible to injury as a quarterback approaching 40 is only realistic. Brady was able to stay healthy, but he is the exception to every rule. Peyton Manning tore his right quadriceps in 2014 then the plantar fascia in his left foot in 2015 in what were his age-38 and age-39 seasons. Drew Brees injured his right thumb on Aaron Donald's helmet in his age-40 season, but the following season, Brees battled a torn rotator cuff, broken ribs, a collapsed lung and his own torn plantar fascia. Even the famously hardy Brett Favre tore his right biceps with the Jets in his age-39 season before finally contending with serious ankle and shoulder injuries in his age-41 campaign with the Vikings.
It would have been impossible to predict that Rodgers would miss the entire season, but it also was probably naive to believe the most likely scenario for him was a healthy 17-game season. As the Jets think about 2024, they can't count on having him at 100 percent or close to it for the entire season.
Did the offensive line put Rodgers at risk?
The O-line was the Jets' biggest weakness on paper heading into the season, and while we only saw Rodgers play behind that line for four snaps, those fears appeared to be warranted. Rodgers was hit on each of his three dropbacks, including the sack that produced the Achilles injury. Was the line -- notably tackles Duane Brown and Mekhi Becton -- at fault for those hits?
Again, not really. The issues were more about the entire offense than the line play itself. And when a lineman was at fault, it wasn't the one Jets fans were expecting to blame.
On the first Rodgers dropback, both Brown and Becton attempted to cut block Buffalo's defensive ends. Neither did a spectacular job, but those are designed blocks that teams use as part of their quick game concepts to help create throwing lanes. Rodgers wanted to throw the slant to former teammate Allen Lazard, but it was covered, and there wasn't another open receiver. Rodgers held the ball before scrambling around Greg Rousseau and throwing it away.
The second play was a true pressure, but it came from a Rousseau bull rush against the player who is often thought of as New York's best lineman, third-year guard Alijah Vera-Tucker. Rousseau ended up knocking down Rodgers, but the Jets drew a holding penalty in the secondary on linebacker Terrel Bernard.
The third and final dropback was another attempt at a cut block from Brown, who didn't get much of edge rusher Leonard Floyd. Again, the cut block implies that the ball is supposed to get out quickly, but Rodgers apparently didn't feel good about throwing the slant on that side to Garrett Wilson. He held the football for nearly four seconds before Floyd made it home, and when Rodgers tried to escape the takedown, he suffered his injury.
You can take umbrage with the decision to have a 38-year-old tackle coming off a shoulder injury drop down and cut edge rushers twice in three plays as part of your scripted first 15 -- and I don't think Brown would look back and put those cut block attempts on his career highlight tape -- but it's clear what the Jets were doing. They wanted to try to slow down the Buffalo pass rush and give Rodgers quick completions against a fearsome pass rush while protecting their tackles from needing to hold up too long in protection. What happened from there is partly on subpar blocks, partly on good defense by the Bills and partly on Rodgers himself. More than anything, three pressures leading to a torn Achilles is just terrible luck.
How does this injury impact the trade with the Packers?
If there's any silver lining in losing Rodgers when they did, the Jets might be able to appreciate the consolation of keeping their 2024 first-round pick. The terms of the trade with the Packers for Rodgers made it extremely likely New York's first-round pick would transfer to Green Bay, given that he would only need to play 65% of the offensive snaps for the deal to trigger. That amounts to a little over 11 games, a figure he won't likely hit by virtue of suffering this injury.
Instead, the Jets will send their second-round pick in 2024 to the Packers. This won't be quite as dramatic of a drop-off as it might feel for Green Bay, as a healthy Rodgers was likely to yield a pick landing in the back half of Round 1, while a Jets team with Wilson at quarterback is likely to send a selection in the front half of Round 2. The Jets can use that first-round selection to add offensive line help for Rodgers next offseason.
Can Rodgers and the Jets be a championship-caliber team in 2024?
Many of the elements that fueled optimism for the Jets in 2023 will be back next season. They have a few notable free agents this offseason in Cook, Lawson, Brown and safety Jordan Whitehead, but the core of players who expected to compete for a title around Rodgers should all be back. The offensive line will need further attention, but the majority of the defense likely will be in place.
Will Rodgers still be a championship-caliber quarterback at that point? It's impossible to say. He wasn't good as a 38-year-old with the Packers last season, in part because he played through a right thumb injury. He then suffered an Achilles injury on the first drive of the season as a 39-year-old.
There isn't exactly a tremendous track record of healthy quarterbacks playing at a Super Bowl level as they approach 40, let alone ones coming off of serious injuries. Dan Marino was able to make it back from a torn Achilles suffered in 1993 and maintain his prior level of play, but that was as a 34-year-old. Rodgers will use the next 12 months to rehab and get back into football shape for the 2024 season, but his recent level of play, the effects of the injury and the typical aging curve for even the best quarterbacks suggest he's likely to be something closer to the 2022 Rodgers than the back-to-back MVP of 2020 and 2021.