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Aaron Rodgers Dangled Hope for a Historic Comeback. All the Jets Got in Return Was Failure.

Rodgers seemed to convince the Jets he could return from Achilles surgery faster than any player in NFL history. Believing him cost the Jets their season.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“Give me the timetables. Give me all the things that you think can, should, or will happen, because all I need is that 1 little extra percent of inspiration. Give me your doubts, give me your prognostications, and then watch what I do.”
—Aaron Rodgers, September 15, 2023

“Being medically cleared as 100 percent healed is not realistic at 14 weeks.”
—Aaron Rodgers, December 19, 2023

Well, there you have it. Two days after the New York Jets were officially eliminated from playoff contention following a 30-0 loss to the Dolphins, and a day before the team would have to make a final decision on whether he would remain on injured reserve for the rest of the year, quarterback Aaron Rodgers said in his weekly paid appearance on The Pat McAfee Show that he will not recover from the Achilles injury he suffered in Week 1 in time to play again this season. His purported bid to beat all previous timelines for recovery after surgery has fallen short.

To be clear, nothing about this is surprising. Since it will not happen this season, Rodgers will most likely return to football activities with no restrictions at offseason practices in April, which puts him almost exactly in line with the recovery timeline the medical community he so resents considers typical for athletes returning from Achilles surgery. The update here is that the 40-year-old quarterback is not a medical marvel, and the 1 little extra percent of inspiration, it turns out, was less relevant to Rodgers’s return than the rates at which fibroblasts release collagen proteins and at which those proteins organize themselves into the tightly packed bundles that make up a strong tendon. What a shock.

The fact that this story has been covered breathlessly for months stems primarily from Rodgers’s unparalleled ability to make himself the NFL’s main character. Within days of his injury, Rodgers had made a series of bold and attention-grabbing pronouncements about his intention to return, including that it would “shock some people” and also something about the healing powers of dolphin sex noises. He has spent much of the season weaving a dramatic comeback narrative, from McAfee’s bully pulpit and other friendly confines, without ever having to back it up.

In Week 9, after the Jets lost to the Chargers, Rodgers was picked up on a hot mic telling Los Angeles safety Derwin James, “Give me a few weeks,” presumably when asked when he’d be back on the field. He backtracked two days later on McAfee’s show, claiming that he said so “tongue in cheek.”

“It’d be nice to be able to be back in a couple weeks,” Rodgers said. “That’s probably not anywhere near a realistic timeline. It could be a few, it could be a lot. It’s more of a phrase that didn’t have a specific timetable. I said it smiling, joking.”

The following week, though, he told NBC’s Melissa Stark that his goal was to return in mid-December. Days after that, he disputed that report, again on McAfee’s show, even though he was the source of it. The pattern has always been entirely transparent. Rodgers makes a big claim when he’s got the spotlight on him, like on that Sunday Night Football broadcast, then retreats or says he was just kidding when pressed on it—when he’s even pressed at all.

Rodgers seems to have been working hard at his rehab, but what he was suggesting he could do was beat the previous fastest return-to-play timeline after Achilles surgery by over a month. (In 2021, then-Rams running back Cam Akers, who was 22 when his injury occurred, compared to Rodgers, who was 39, underwent the same “speed bridge” procedure as Rodgers and returned to play after five months.) As Rodgers himself admitted Tuesday, it’s unrealistic to believe he had a real shot at this unprecedented recovery. To take his comeback attempt seriously was to believe one of the NFL’s most unreliable narrators on medical science and basic logic.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what the Jets seem to have done. Some portion of maintaining a strong relationship with Rodgers seems to depend on justifying his distorted reality, and the Jets spent the past three months indulging his comeback bid at the expense of trying to salvage their season. The team anointed Rodgers its savior in the offseason and, when he went down four snaps into its first game, decided keeping him on that pedestal was more important than attempting to save itself.

Rodgers has remained the center of the Jets’ season, despite the fact that he is not playing in it.

While he spent the first part of his rehab at home in Malibu, coaches fawned over his willingness to FaceTime into some offensive meetings. Rodgers, on—you guessed it!—The Pat McAfee Show in September, talked about going over the defensive schemes of the next opponent, the New England Patriots, with players and coaches, though passing game coordinator Todd Downing described his contributions slightly differently: “It’s more like, ‘We miss our brother and want him to be part of the meeting,’” Downing told ESPN.

When quarterback Zach Wilson, who has started 11 of 14 games for the team this season but was benched for third-stringer Tim Boyle for two games after Thanksgiving, was reportedly reluctant to take the job back, it was Rodgers who called and urged him to do it, according to The Athletic. Rodgers has disputed this account, but in any case, he wound up in the middle of the story, railing against the “character assassination” of Wilson and criticizing the Jets for having what he assumed to be an internal leak.

Once he returned to practice on a limited basis three weeks ago, Jets games seemed to take a back seat in favor of media coverage that chronologized his every throw or move. Just last week, the biggest news in Florham Park, New Jersey, was that Rodgers reportedly leaped and intercepted a pass during a seven-on-seven drill. (The Jets are also … apparently … letting their 40-year-old injured quarterback play scout team linebacker?)

This is all pretty silly, but mostly harmless. What’s not is how the Jets have treated the quarterback position since Rodgers’s injury. While they’ve been feeding the ESPN-industrial complex, they completely tanked their very real chances to be a playoff team by continuing to keep Wilson as their starting quarterback for the majority of the season.

Do not be gaslit into thinking there’s a reasonable justification for this. When Rodgers got hurt, it was widely assumed that they’d make some kind of stabilizing move at the position. Probably nothing flashy, but not nothing. The most they did was add Trevor Siemian to the practice squad.

They didn’t need great quarterback play to compete for a playoff spot, not in this murky AFC. It’s a clear testament to defensive-minded coach Robert Saleh that the team still appears to be playing hard, with a defense ranked third by DVOA and a special teams unit ranked fourth.

They just needed more than the league-worst expected points added per play and success rate that Wilson has given them. It’s hard to see how the Jets couldn’t have benefited from what Joe Flacco is giving the Browns right now or how it was necessary for Jacoby Brissett to hang around on the Commanders bench all season or how the Rams saw something in Carson Wentz—Carson Wentz!—that the Jets didn’t.

The only good explanation for the Jets’ failure to try to find a different solution at quarterback is that they didn’t want to upset Rodgers. They were able to trade for him, after all, only because of how his relationship with Green Bay soured. There’s also plenty of evidence that the Jets are willing to shoot themselves in the foot to assuage Rodgers’s roster preferences: Allen Lazard, the receiver the Jets gave $22 million guaranteed to in March, has 311 receiving yards and one touchdown on the season and was a healthy scratch three weeks ago against the Dolphins on Black Friday. Randall Cobb is earning $3 million to average 4 yards per game. Boyle, another friend of Rodgers, shockingly did not prove to be an upgrade over Wilson and was eventually cut. So instead of making a quarterback move, they bought into a comeback narrative that was never a good bet, either because they so badly wanted it to be real or because they couldn’t bear to tell Rodgers that it wasn’t.

So they will try again next year—after an offseason in which Rodgers told McAfee he hopes to provide some input on personnel moves. If he stays healthy in his first season after his 40th birthday and gives New York average play, it should be a good team in 2024. But this didn’t have to be about next year so soon, and maybe it wouldn’t have been if the Jets hadn’t been so willing to buy what Rodgers was selling. They wanted a savior. What they got was scammed.