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Aaron Rodgers Was Supposed to Define the Jets’ Season. Instead, the Decision Not to Replace Him Has.

It’s been two months since Rodgers went down with a torn Achilles. So why have the Jets chosen to keep starting Zach Wilson instead of finding another quarterback? We have theories—and plenty of questions.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

At the midpoint of the 2023 NFL season, the New York Jets rank among the bottom three in nearly every important offensive category: They’re 31st in yards per game, 32nd in offensive touchdowns, 31st in offensive points per game, 31st in offensive expected points added, 30th in passing yards per game, and dead last in total first downs. They’ve put forth a truly miserable offensive performance, and it’s made even worse by the fact that this was entirely predictable. When Aaron Rodgers went down with a torn Achilles tendon just four plays into his Jets debut in early September, the team’s brain trust was left with a choice: bring in an outside replacement to fill the Rodgers-sized hole at quarterback, or run back the experiment that fizzled in 2022. They chose the latter, entrusting Zach Wilson to maximize the potential of an otherwise playoff-ready roster.

It’d be one thing if the Jets just needed some time to regroup after losing Rodgers in such sudden and dramatic fashion. But in the eight weeks since he got hurt, they have done nothing to improve their quarterback situation beyond signing Trevor Siemian to the practice squad and hoping that Wilson magically transforms into a better option than he was in the first two years of his career. That gambit has failed: Outside of a decent showing in the second half of a loss to the Chiefs last month, Wilson has consistently played like one of the NFL’s worst quarterbacks. He can’t handle pressure, as he’s being sacked on 10.5 percent of his passing attempts; he ranks last among qualified passers in both completion percentage and yards per attempt. Head coach Robert Saleh is probably right that Wilson’s performance in the Jets’ 27-6 loss to the Chargers in Week 9 wasn’t the quarterback’s worst game, but that’s not an endorsement after an outing in which Wilson lost two fumbles, was sacked eight times, and failed to lead a touchdown drive. Wilson is currently 31st in The Ringer’s Quarterback Rankings, ahead of only Tyson Bagent, Gardner Minshew, and Aidan O’Connell; he’s behind Joshua Dobbs, whom the Jets could have acquired at the trade deadline, and Desmond Ridder, who was recently benched.

It certainly seems like organizational malpractice that Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas have let things get to this point. The Jets have the league’s sixth-ranked defense by DVOA, with a dominant pass rush and an elite cornerback in Sauce Gardner. They have a budding superstar receiver in Garrett Wilson and one of the league’s best big-play running backs in Breece Hall. The offensive line can be a liability, yes, but Wilson’s poor decision-making and tendency to hold on to the ball too long often put that group in tough situations. The Jets are merely competent quarterback play away from being an AFC contender—just like they were a season ago. It’s exactly the reason they so aggressively pursued Rodgers in the first place.

But now that the trade deadline has passed, there can be no more what-ifs for the Jets. The only quarterback possibly coming to save them is Rodgers—and that’s only if the near-40-year-old can recover from his Achilles injury in unprecedented time. And the carrot of Rodgers’s return is only worth dangling if Wilson can keep the Jets afloat long enough to make the playoffs, and there is little evidence that he is capable of doing so.

One of the NFL’s most pressing questions over the first half of this season was what the Jets would do to salvage their playoff dreams after Rodgers went down. Now that we know the answer, a different question has emerged: Why did the Jets choose to do nothing, giving their fans the worst case of déjà vu? Let’s run through the most likely scenarios that could explain what seems like a totally baffling decision.

Scenario 1: The Jets still believe in Zach Wilson.

This is the case the Jets made in the immediate aftermath of Rodgers’s injury. “Everything about him is just so much different than a year ago,” Saleh told reporters on September 12. “It’s happening faster than I think anyone expected, obviously, under the circumstances. But he’s somebody that’s made a drastic improvement from a year ago.”

It’s also the case they’ve continued to make in the months since, no matter how much evidence has accumulated to the contrary.

The thinking, at least initially, seems apparent. At his core, Wilson is still the toolsy, athletic quarterback with the big arm who won over Douglas and Saleh during the 2021 predraft process. Perhaps he had simply lost confidence after two bad seasons in which he completed barely 55 percent of his passes and threw 18 interceptions and 15 touchdowns. Perhaps he benefited from an offseason and training camp in Rodgers’s shadow, and perhaps his problems were fixable.

And from a coaching perspective, Saleh had to pump Wilson up when he was reinserted into the starting lineup in September. Remember, Wilson was benched last year and had to apologize to teammates for his lack of personal accountability for his poor play, while Jets players celebrated Rodgers’s arrival as if he were the franchise savior. Saleh’s projection of confidence in Wilson may have been intended in part to assuage the panic of Jets fans, but it was also likely meant to speak to concerns from his own players, who had been so eager to move on to Rodgers and leave Wilson behind.

It is easy to understand why the Jets’ first response to Rodgers’s injury was to give Wilson a second chance. The problem is that any internal belief that Wilson might have improved this offseason quickly proved to be unfounded. And each week that’s passed has only reinforced that the franchise’s bet on Wilson’s continued development is a sunk cost.

The Jets miraculously won their Week 1 matchup against the Bills after Rodgers left in the first quarter, but they lost their next three games. In the Jets’ losses in Weeks 2 through 4, Wilson ranked 31st among qualified passers in completion percentage (56.9 percent, just slightly above where he was in 2021-22) and 30th in EPA per dropback. He threw three touchdowns and three picks and was, as my Ringer colleague Benjamin Solak pointed out in Week 2, exactly the same player he’d always been: not a guy who seems capable of getting the Jets to the playoffs. If this scenario explains the Jets’ initial thinking, it feels unlikely that it’s driven their decision-making more recently.

Scenario 2: Other available quarterbacks didn’t represent enough of an upgrade over Wilson.

Finding a quarterback to replace Wilson after the season started was always going to be difficult, and the list of potentially attainable quarterbacks who represented a clear upgrade over Wilson probably started and ended with Kirk Cousins because of his expiring contract and the Vikings’ slow start to the year. But the Jets getting Cousins would’ve required trading away significant draft capital, just months after the franchise swapped 2023 first-round picks with Green Bay and traded a 2024 second-rounder to land Rodgers. Of course, it also would have required the Vikings and Cousins, who has a no-trade clause, being open to a deal.

Beyond Cousins, the list of available passers back in September was bleak or, at best, complicated. Could New York’s brain trust have called Arizona to see whether Kyler Murray was available? Sure, but he is expensive, and is only this week poised to return from the torn ACL he suffered late last season. What about Matt Ryan? He wasn’t exactly awesome in 2022 with the Colts, and he seems happy in his cushy CBS job. Carson Wentz? Like Wilson, he’s a failed no. 2 overall pick who throws a lot of interceptions. Signing Wentz would have been doing something, but it would have been a hard sell to the fan base and the locker room that he was any better than Wilson. (Wentz is now finally employed, having signed with the Rams this week.)

But as Wilson continued to struggle, even while the Jets won a few games in October, the calculus seems like it shifted. Quarterbacks who probably weren’t available in September may have been on the market in October. What about Jimmy Garoppolo? The Raiders were spiraling, and he was benched days after the trade deadline. Jacoby Brissett? Washington was a seller at the deadline, and, simply comparing their 2022 seasons, he appears to be a clear upgrade over Wilson.

Then there is Joshua Dobbs, the one quarterback who was actually traded at the deadline last week. All it cost the Vikings to acquire him from Arizona was a 2024 late-round pick swap (a sixth for a seventh, a classic Ick Swap). Jets fans may have felt ill last week watching Wilson fail, drive after drive, on Monday Night Football just a day after Dobbs led the Vikings to a comeback win over the Falcons, despite having never taken a practice snap with the starting offense.

Yet there is no indication that the Jets attempted to make any move at quarterback in the weeks or days leading up to the deadline. Did they even know that Dobbs, who consistently demonstrated competency as Arizona’s starter, was available for the NFL equivalent of a nickel? (Per ESPN, the Jets did call the Raiders about the possibility of trading for receiver Davante Adams, but were rebuffed. So we know they were at least making calls, just not the right ones.)

Now, with Wentz officially in Los Angeles, the list of available quarterbacks who might actually be better than Wilson is even slimmer. The Jets would be looking at the prospect of signing a free agent like Joe Flacco (who started nine games for the franchise from 2020-22 and is surely waiting by the phone) or Colt McCoy. At this point, the question isn’t who else can they sign, but when will Siemian, still on the practice squad, or backup Tim Boyle, one of many friends of Rodgers on the roster, get a shot? As with the first scenario on this list, this one seems like it could’ve informed the Jets’ initial approach to stick by Wilson, but the logic doesn’t seem to hold as well in the period directly heading into the trade deadline.

Scenario 3: Once Rodgers went down, the Jets started playing for 2024.

It would be understandable if privately, in a moment of existential dread and rage about why the football gods so clearly hate the Jets, the people in charge of the franchise, from owner Woody Johnson on down, briefly had the instinct to punt on the 2023 season after losing Rodgers. After all, trading for Rodgers and building the offense in his image—with his buddies at offensive coordinator, receiver, and backup quarterback—was their move to go all in for this season, and their Super Bowl dreams were shattered in an instant. Is it possible they looked at their quarterback depth chart without Rodgers, surveyed the landscape of the AFC, and wondered why life was so unfair? That they said fuck it and resolved to get as high a draft pick as possible for 2024 and look forward to restarting the playoff hype machine next August? Maybe.

But accepting this scenario necessitates making a few assumptions that give me pause. One, it takes for granted that both Saleh and Douglas have job security heading into 2024; while neither could be blamed for Rodgers’s injury, both are responsible for the decision to draft Wilson in the first place, and they’ve failed to make the playoffs in their respective tenures. Job security doesn’t seem like a sure thing. Two, this scenario assumes that the Jets have maintained unwavering confidence in a 40-year-old quarterback recovering from a serious injury. And three, it relies on the Jets brass believing that a young and talented roster would lose enough games to land a top pick.

To that last point: The 2022 season proved that the Jets were a good team with excellent young players. Even given the worst-case scenario at quarterback, this team isn’t bad. Or at least not bad enough to be in contention for a premium draft pick week after week.

Sure enough, after a rough 1-3 start that included a blowout loss to the Cowboys, the Jets started winning, largely in spite of Wilson. If there had been any private whispers in mid-September about focusing on the 2024 draft and Rodgers’s return next fall, the paradigm shifted when New York hit its Week 7 bye at 3-3. There would be no tanking, but with Wilson, there would probably be no playoffs, either.

While Wilson has been undeniably awful, the Jets remain aggressively average. They are 20th in team DVOA and 17th in The Ringer’s Power Rankings. Despite their offensive ineptitude, they rank 21st in point differential. If the draft happened tomorrow, they would have the 16th pick—three picks after where they were set to pick this spring before swapping first-rounders with Green Bay.

This team might actually be better than the one Wilson played with last year. That makes it hard to believe that the Jets brass would have seriously considered a scenario in which they wouldn’t try to be competitive this year, with or without Rodgers.

Scenario 4: The Jets’ inaction is about Aaron Rodgers.

That brings us back to the man himself. Rodgers, from his weekly appearances on The Pat McAfee Show to the way he’s now wearing a headset on the sideline during games, remains the main character of this Jets season, despite having taken just four snaps. Circumstance aside, this is what the franchise wanted when it shaped its 2023 identity around Rodgers. He followed offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett to New York, and his longtime Green Bay teammates Randall Cobb and Allen Lazard signed with the Jets in free agency.

The Jets didn’t have a Plan B. That much was obvious. And in the weeks since Rodgers got hurt, they haven’t created one. It’s possible this is in part because they don’t have and have never had clarity about his rehab timeline. It’s unheard of for an NFL player to tear his Achilles tendon in a game and return to play in the same season, and yet, just four days after going down in Week 1, Rodgers insinuated to McAfee that he might return this season. “Give me your doubts, give me your prognostications, and then watch what I do,” he said on September 15.

In the months since, Rodgers has taken every opportunity to show the world just how fast he’s healing (those dolphins near his Malibu home must be getting busy): how he can walk without crutches, how he can wear regular shoes and throw flat-footed. ESPN’s microphones caught him telling Chargers safety Derwin James to “give [him] a few weeks” when asked after last Monday’s game when he might return. (He since clarified, on McAfee’s show, that he was joking with James and a few weeks was “an unrealistic timeline.”)

Still, Rodgers does seem serious about returning at some point. And, even if he were able to make a return to practice in January—should the Jets manage to make the playoffs with Wilson—it would be historic for any NFL player, let alone a 40-year-old quarterback. Former Rams running back Cam Akers ruptured his Achilles in July 2021 and was able to practice by late December and played in the Rams’ run to that season’s Super Bowl. Ravens pass rusher Terrell Suggs returned to play just over five months after an Achilles tear in 2012. Rodgers is looking to beat both of those recovery timelines by about a month, though he’s offered few specifics about his actual rehab process. He’s hopefully being more transparent with Douglas, Saleh, and the Jets’ doctors about his recovery than he is with McAfee’s viewers.

Then there’s the other possible wrinkle here. We know how Rodgers has reacted in the past when his team acquires a new quarterback. It’s fair to wonder what Rodgers would’ve done had the Jets aggressively pursued a veteran—from Cousins to Murray to, shoot, maybe even Dobbs—at any point over the past two months.

In doing nothing to address their glaring quarterback problem, Saleh and Douglas have avoided any awkwardness with their injured star. Rodgers, meanwhile, has been able to shroud his quest to overcome the odds in secrecy. If this all works out how he seems to be planning, he could be a Jets hero. And if it doesn’t work out, well, Wilson being this bad only makes the Jets and their fans long for Rodgers and what could have been even more.

None of these four scenarios seem to justify the Jets’ lack of urgency in trying to find a starting quarterback other than Wilson, and they certainly don’t make the end result more satisfying. The other explanation to consider is the simplest: For the Jets, doing nothing to improve their quarterback situation after losing Rodgers was easier than doing something. The decision to stand pat may have been made by inertia.

The rationale may remain a mystery, but the impact is the same. For all the intrigue surrounding the Jets’ options over the past few weeks, it no longer matters whether they were led by faulty logic, misguided faith, or organizational stubbornness. Now they’re stuck, with no one to blame but themselves.