“I’m sick to my stomach, man,” radio host and retired quarterback Boomer Esiason said at the crack of dawn Tuesday morning on WFAN. “It feels like somebody died,” agreed his cohost, Gregg Giannotti. “I feel like we are grieving a friend, and I don’t even know Aaron Rodgers.” They weren’t the only ones. Far and wide that morning, on MTA subways and over national airwaves, football fans struggled to come to grips with exactly who and what had gone down only a few minutes into Monday Night Football at MetLife Stadium.
The who would be Rodgers, the 39-year-old four-time MVP who signed a two-year, $75 million deal with the New York Jets this spring after 18 years in Green Bay. Rodgers was probably the most closely followed NFL player going into this season, and Monday night was his debut in New York. Surrounded by pulsing green-and-white lights in the stands and in front of a record crowd of more than 83,000, he ran onto the field triumphantly holding a large American flag on 9/11—and then lasted for all of three busted plays before being carted off with what turned out to be a season- and maybe career-ending torn Achilles tendon.
Peyton Manning's reaction to the Aaron Rodgers injury: pic.twitter.com/sv5zSIjvMq— QENNY wants all the SPOOKY (@AKBrews) September 12, 2023
Even in the context of a franchise that can never catch a break, what happened to Rodgers was a stunningly premature conclusion to what was supposed to be one of the most entertaining and influential story lines of the 2023 season. And it left even the most chatterboxy Jets fans and sports media personalities alike, up to and including Peyton Manning, reaching for what to say. Over the first 48 hours that followed Rodgers’s injury, football enthusiasts oscillated from outwardly shocked to cautiously optimistic and back again, stopping to dwell on the good (the Jets defense! the overtime win!), the bad (the Jets’ quarterback depth chart! the list of quarterback free agents!), and the ugly (the prospect of a grueling Achilles rehab program at age almost 40!).
“Our soul was grabbed out of our body and stomped on,” explained Craig Carton, host of The Carton Show on FS1, on Tuesday. On ESPN the same day, Mike Greenberg, a proud Jets fan who hosts Get Up, looked stricken. One minute, his wife had been posting happy basement party photos of him and his friends getting ready for some Gang Green football in the fun new Rodgers era. The next minute, the uninspiring Zach Wilson—who in his first two seasons in New York went 8-14 and threw more interceptions than touchdowns—was once again playing quarterback for the Jets.
Greenberg alternated between thanking viewers “for all the nice notes you’ve sent”; insisting that it would take a long time for him to well and truly grasp the magnitude of Rodgers’s injury; and saying things like: “I don’t want to use words lightly because there are far more tragic things that can happen. But! Within the context of sports, for those of us who place a disproportionate amount of significance on these games that people play, this is tragic for the Jets.” Sports may be a novelty most of the time, but these games that people play aren’t always fun.
Amid all the gloom and doom, all the We didn’t even get to sees and the He never even completed anys, it was comforting to see that the sports media personalities remained extremely themselves. On Mike Francesa’s instant reaction podcast, sponsored by an entity called “BetRivers,” Mikey compared Rodgers to a guy he knows who had been a tennis player for 40 years. “Walks out on the pickleball court for the first time—tore his Achilles,” Francesa said. “As you get older, you get these injuries. It’s a bitter, bitter pill.” On the NFL Network, Peter Schrager quoted Woody Allen’s paraphrase of the Yiddish proverb about how God laughs in the face of man’s plans. Both the back sports pages and the front pages of the NYC tabloids were all about Rodgers. (Newsday and the Post both went with quite frankly disappointing “AGONY AND ECSTASY” headlines to describe the juxtaposition of Rodgers’s loss with the 22-16 overtime win over the Bills that the Jets plucked from the jaws of defeat.)
The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey simply tweeted, “Goodbye,” implicitly bidding all of it adieu—the dumb Super Bowl aspirations, the content-rich Rodgers pressers, the kooky baked-in fun. On WFAN, Brandon Tierney had a zaggy minor meltdown directed at the perceived pessimists on staff. “Don’t say the season is over,” he begged. “Stop walking around the office like a loser!” If Monday night wouldn’t kill the Jets, he declared, “we are unkillable!” On First Take, Stephen A. Smith started out very, very quiet, which is how you know things might be kind of dire. (Usually he gets like that about the Knicks.) But it wasn’t long before he began to unwind, and eventually, I wrote in my notes:
SAS says in THE most Martin Short voice possible—“did the Jets make a mistake not going after Lamar Jackson? Just asking! Just asking!”
The next day, when Chris “Mad Dog” Russo joined Smith on the show, Russo yelled, not once but twice, that “Joe Namath is not coming down from the clouds!” to play quarterback, wording so specific that I googled when it was exactly that Broadway Joe had left this earthly plane. (He hasn’t! Long live Broadway Joe!)
Once folks got through the initial wave of shock and the mental gymnastics for what it means not to have Rodgers this season, a new meaty question remained: Whom should the Jets pursue at quarterback? One WFAN caller, Jason in Waterbury, Connecticut, laid out a long case for … calling up the Vikings about Kirk Cousins. On ESPN, Stephen A. said: “I’m gonna shock you with this: I probably would call Carson Wentz.” A news item popped up saying that Colin Kaepernick’s reps had reached out to the team. Tom Brady, Jameis Winston, Matt Ryan—all topics of conversation. Esiason said he’d don his old no. 7. Jets head coach Robert Saleh said that the team was behind one guy: Wilson. “I feel terrible for this kid,” said First Take panelist Marcus Spears, trying to be nice.
Eavesdropping on all these people talking about the Jets, I noticed a few recurring themes. Like the double-edged sword of winning the game thanks to the team’s siiiick defense (Esiason compared it to the ’85 Bears’) and the bold, smiley rookie Xavier Gipson. On the one hand, that’s fantastic; on the other hand, it’s a painful indication that maybe the Jets really were just one Aaron Rodgers away from being a real contender, and now they are one Aaron Rodgers short. I also noticed a number of people who seemed as though they had talked themselves into Wilson’s potential. I have no hard evidence for this, but I believe the past few days have seen a major uptick in the phrases “system QB” and “under Rodgers’s wing.”
And then there was the dredging up of painful memories, both in Jets lore and in spaces adjacent to the team. Take March 15, for example: After weeks of rumors and coy remarks and one total-darkness retreat, that was the day Rodgers announced on The Pat McAfee Show that he did indeed want to leave Green Bay and become a New York Jet. Great news!
The same day, newly re-signed New York Mets star closer Edwin Díaz pitched a perfect ninth inning for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. Afterward, jumping around in celebration on the field with his teammates and his brother, Díaz tore his patellar tendon and had to be carted off in a wheelchair. His MLB season was already over, and it hadn’t even begun.
That’s the case with Rodgers now, too. Earlier this week, three former NFL players across three TV shows all weighed in with stories from when they tore their Achilles. (So did one former Real World contestant.) “One of the worst injuries you can have,” recalled Richard Sherman. “It almost felt like I had to learn how to walk again,” said Damien Woody.
Before everything broke bad on Monday night, former Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde was on hand for the coin toss, an appearance that in hindsight seems like part of the increasingly acknowledged Jets curse. After all, it was 24 years ago, in 1999, when Testaverde ruptured his Achilles, also in the opening game of the season, an injury that torpedoed the team’s ambitious plans and ultimately led to the departure of Bill Parcells as coach (and the resignation of Bill Belichick via a napkin).
As the week’s drawn on, there have been signs that nature is already starting the long process of healing. The tenor of conversation Wednesday shifted from grief-stricken to a little bit wild-eyed, maybe even belligerent—the sort of Jets energy I know. In a conversation with his former partner Evan Roberts, beloved retired WFAN anchor Joe Benigno claimed, “I feel real good, man. I’m pumped up” about the Jets season. (Other talking heads on the station expressed surprise.) In a press conference on Wednesday, Saleh said all the right things, including: “I don’t know why people are trying to put an obituary on our team name.”
But over on WFAN, Boomer and Gio had their own lines of inquiry surrounding the death of a dream. “You know how a chicken can get its head cut off and just walk around a little before it dies?” Gianotti mused. There was no need for him to say more.