Briefly on Thursday, Aaron Rodgers and Gates showed everyone what a renewal looks like.
After a rocky few opening streak during a scrimmage on the first day of the Jets’ training camp, Rodgers fired the ball at second-year wide receiver Garrett Wilson on a quick way out. Wilson caught the pass, fumbled briefly, then darted to the touchline for a healthy gain, prompting cheers from his spirited teammates.
It was the kind of offensive dynamic the Jets had sorely missed for years as the team struggled to find a long-term answer in quarterback, the most important position in the game. The addition of Brett Favre in 2008 failed to make a playoff appearance, and early round draft picks after him have had mixed results.
But the arrival of four-time Most Valuable Player Rodgers brings heightened expectations this season – and an uncommon level of excitement around a team whose name has been synonymous with ineptitude for more than a decade.
“There’s a lot of positivity here, which I think is a good thing,” Rodgers said after training.
After lengthy negotiations, the Jets agreed to acquire Rodgers in a trade with the Green Bay Packers on April 24, adding a level of spectacle behind the team. The league has scheduled the Jets to five primetime games this season, up from one appearance in 2022, including a Week 1 contest against the Buffalo Bills on “Monday Night Football.” Filming crews from the HBO documentary series “Hard Knocks” will follow the team all season, and the Jets headline the NFL’s first ever Black Friday game, on Amazon.
The interest is far from what was expected before last season. The Jets surprisingly started 6-3 behind a top-ranked defense before shaky quarterback play spoiled newfound hopes. Zach Wilson, second overall in 2021, was benched in favor of backup quarterback Mike White, and the team went 1-7 to close out the season.
By adding Rodgers, the Jets sought to speed organizational rebuilding. The team nurtured young talent, including offensive and defensive rookies of the year Garrett Wilson and cornerback Seuss Gardner.
“When you have so many great players in rookie deals, it’s very exciting to know you can do something, you have a good window,” Rodgers said. “It’s not just a one-year thing where you can compete, which is fun.”
As players reported from camp on Wednesday, some talked about making it to the Super Bowl, a lofty goal for a franchise that was last in the postseason in 2010.
“Bringing a guy like him into the building just excites everyone in general because it’s his resume, the character that he is, the guy that he is, that brings a spark to everyone,” said defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, who said he previously pelted Rodgers with questions about the best defensive players he’s ever faced.
But even with Rodgers arriving, there is reason to be optimistic that he will qualify.
Rodgers, who turns 40 in December, is facing football’s age clock: Few quarterbacks – with the exception of Tom Brady – have excelled at that point in their careers. And after winning back-to-back MVP awards in 2020 and 2021, Rodgers had the worst season of his career as a full-time player, posting his second-highest interception average and lowest rating since 2008.
Rodgers brings more than just a Hall of Fame resume to the Jets. He drew criticism in 2021 for denouncing the league’s Covid-19 vaccination policy after he tested positive for the coronavirus. Despite claiming before the season that he had been “vaccinated” against the virus, Rodgers was fined for breaching the league’s Covid-19 protocols for unvaccinated players by attending a Halloween party.
The end of Rodgers’ tenure in Green Bay was also marred by altercations with coaches and team management over roster and play-call decisions, as well as his public criticism of the Packers’ young receivers.
He said that so far he is happy with his new team.
“There are so many fun things that have come up with this time in my life, and I’m enjoying every minute of it,” he said Thursday.
For their part, the Jets seem to have tried to build the team in Rodgers’ image. They have Garrett Wilson, the kind of explosive young wide receiver Rodgers complained he was missing at Green Bay. They brought in some of Rodgers’ friends and former Packers teammates, like receivers Randall Cobb and Allen Lazard and offensive lineman Billy Turner, and hired Nathaniel Hackett, Rodgers’ offensive coordinator from 2019 to 2021, in the same role.
Lazard, who played five seasons with Rodgers in Green Bay and signed with the Jets in March, believes he can help some of the team’s younger receivers, acknowledging that “Aaron Rodgers’ offense” can present a learning curve.
“When he’s on the field, the playbook is open at any time,” Lazard said of Rodgers. “Even during the first day of training, he might pull a cue, do something we never talked about.”
It certainly won’t be what the planes are used to.