Aaron Rodgers is still Aaron Rodgers, so it was big and startling news when the New York Jets swung a deal with the Green Bay Packers to land the 39-year-old quarterback on Monday. That the teams had publicly telegraphed the deal for months did not matter. Adam Schefter, who breaks a plurality of NFL news for ESPN, underwent a visible blood-pressure spike as he read the text message on air with details of the trade. His colleagues, either similarly tickled or just sensing the moment and how they are supposed to feel when Aaron Rodgers gets traded on live TV, reacted with apparent shock.
Rodgers is still Rodgers, but he is no longer Rodgers. Or at least he might not be; 2022 was the worst season of his career by a wide margin. Coming off back-to-back MVP seasons, the quarterback averaged 6.8 yards per throw (a career worst) and had touchdown and interception rates, respectively, near the bottom of his career ledger. His career-low ESPN QB rating of 39.3 was grisly by any standard, not just his, placing him 27th in the NFL and directly between two QBs who most people would agree are now cooked: Matt Ryan (clearly cooked) and Russell Wilson (sure looked cooked in his miserable first year with the Denver Broncos).
Rodgers had a bad year, is old, and cost the Jets dearly. In conventional valuation terms, ESPN’s Seth Walder makes a convincing case that New York got the lesser end of the trade by sending out a bushel of draft picks. (Giving up a bounty and some extra goodies may have been inevitable, as the Jets were public about their pursuit of Rodgers and worked their fanbase into a fervor over getting him. Were they going to walk away from him? No, probably not.) Add that Rodgers is a generally insufferable dude who spent years antagonizing his Packers bosses and sees himself as something of a player–general manager, and one could reach a reasonable conclusion not to touch him with a 10-foot pole. The Jets are tossing caution into the Meadowlands swamps and probably won’t get a Super Bowl out of their excursion.
Somehow, though, they’re still in the right. Getting Rodgers isn’t a stroke of brilliance but of the obvious, right down to paying him nearly $60 million this year for what could be more bad play. The Jets had little chance of going anywhere in the near or medium term, and now, because of the mere possibility that there’s a sliver of excellence left in Rodgers’ right arm, they could, in theory, be going somewhere. It is a momentous thing to say, but now it has to be said: The Jets know what they are doing. And if the Rodgers trade burns them, at least they’ll die a more compelling death than usual. J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets!
The acquisition would be iffier if the Jets had anyone of consequence at quarterback now or were positioned to draft one on Thursday. The team went 7–10 last season, and before the Rodgers trade, had the 13th pick, not high enough to get class studs Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, or Anthony Richardson without a painful trading-up. They’d have had an even later pick if the No. 2 overall selection from 2021, ex-BYU QB Zach Wilson, had not been maybe the worst QB in the NFL over his first two years of action. Wilson’s numbers have been gory, he has not shown the kind of improvement that fellow 2021 draftee (No. 11) Justin Fields has in Chicago, and he has exuded a rotten vibe in New York. The Jets showed what they thought of Wilson when they benched him for Joe Flacco’s skeleton last season. Wilson was even bad at the performative off-field stuff QBs are supposed to do. Maybe he will figure out a way to hack it in some form in the NFL, but it was not going to be as the Jets’ starter. It was wise of general manager Joe Douglas not to let a sunk cost be more than that.
Continuing with a guaranteed nonentity at QB would’ve been particularly harmful given where the Jets are right now. If their losing record last year weren’t bad enough, they also had to deal with the humiliation of a QB they discarded, Geno Smith, making a career for himself as the Seattle Seahawks’ starter. But the team was 7–4 before losing out in a total wheels-falling-off scenario. The Jets have played basically all of the past two years without their star left tackle, Mekhi Becton, a 2020 draft pick who should eventually be awesome again. They spent a first-round pick last year on a promising receiver, Garrett Wilson, and a second-rounder on a really good running back, Breece Hall. They signed wideout Mecole Hardman in free agency because he is fast, and they signed wideout Allen Lazard because he is pretty good and also friends with Rodgers. (This was also undoubtedly a key qualification for new offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, himself a former Packer.) A good defense is already in place; the Jets were fourth in the league in defensive expected points added and have elite second-year cornerback Sauce Gardner poised to get even better than he was as a rookie. Head coach Robert Saleh knows defense, and Rodgers can be player-coach with Hackett on offense.
Everything was in place for the Jets to be an interesting team—except someone to wing the pig. With Wilson, maybe the Jets could’ve gotten mild improvement and sneaked into a wild-card spot before getting rapidly punted out of the playoffs. And while it is wholly possible that Rodgers can’t do better than that, he at least has an age-defying track record already. (See: those two late-career MVPs after he had his previous worst season ever in 2019.) There is a plausible shape of the NFL season wherein Rodgers is a top-echelon QB and the Jets fight with the Buffalo Bills to win the AFC East. The notion of the Jets doing that with any available non-Rodgers QB strained the imagination more, so here they are together.
There are other reasons to trade for Aaron Rodgers. He builds excitement. He sells jerseys. He sells tickets, something that has not been a given for the Jets as their 12-year streak of playoff-less seasons has built up. He can riff about the wokeness pervading our schools with Woody Johnson, the team owner. He can make the Jets a little bit cooler. How long has it been since there’s been an even plausibly MVP-caliber quarterback playing football in New York? Oh, no. The answer is 2008, when Brett Favre, Rodgers’ Green Bay predecessor, made an unmemorable Jets stopover.
Rodgers might be a pain. He might not offer even league-average production. The capital expended to land him might set the Jets back for several years. And yet getting him was the only thing the Jets could do, in small part because they trapped themselves in a public-relations fight but in bigger part because of the alternative. If your QB is Wilson or some free agent, you have nothing. If you have a guy who can throw a ball like Rodgers maybe could, you have something. The Jets, for the first time in around three presidential terms, have a chance at having a chance.