In case you had any questions and in case you wanted to downplay the significance, Aaron Rodgers said it out loud.
“A big reason I’m here, I’ve got to mention, is Nathaniel Hackett,” the New York Jets’ new quarterback said Wednesday at his introductory news conference.
The connection between quarterback and offensive coordinator is no secret, nor is it the only reason Rodgers ended his 18-year employment with the Green Bay Packers. (He will tell you he was pushed out.) But on a day when the 39-year-old quarterback laid the foundation for his next professional chapter, and after a season in which Hackett weathered a disastrous and short stay as Denver Broncos head coach, Rodgers wanted the world to know: Don’t count out Hackett.
“Hack and I became really close friends for three years in Green Bay,” Rodgers said. “I love him like a brother and I believe in him. And I’m really happy to be back working with him again.”
He’d mention Hackett a half dozen times before his stage time was up.
Because not only are Rodgers and Hackett close from Green Bay, but also their success in New York will be closely tied together. They need each other to succeed. And they believe that their partnership — along with the more than 50 other players, head coach Robert Saleh, general manager Joe Douglas and more — can help disprove some perceptions they face.
Will they succeed?
Months away from 40, Aaron Rodgers’ age looms large
The biggest chip on Rodgers’ shoulder is his age. His discontent with Green Bay is obvious as well, but the root of that disagreement seems also to stem from his age.
Is Rodgers washed, to put it colloquially? Did a dip in his efficiency last season reflect the reality he faces as his 40th birthday lurks in December?
The Packers made clear, when they selected quarterback Jordan Love in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, that they sought a contingency plan. Rodgers’ retort was to win consecutive MVP awards, before struggling last year without his go-to coordinator and go-to receiver (the Packers dealt star wideout Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders).
Rodgers’ 64.6% completion rate and 3,695 passing yards actually still ranked 11th league-wide, his 26 passing touchdowns seventh. But compared to his 2021 dominance, he threw interceptions 2.75 times as often, averaged 39.8 fewer passing yards per game and netted a passer rating down 19.8 points. After two years with the NFL’s best passer rating, he now was textbook mediocre at 16th.
Retirement became a possibility, even temporarily a probability which Rodgers said he was “90%” leaning toward. Then, after a much-discussed darkness retreat, he decided in February: “My intention coming out of the darkness was to pursue this [Jets] opportunity.”
He has something to prove.
“When you get older, it’s fun to go out each year and prove you can still do it,” Rodgers said. “I’m an old guy so I want to be a part of a team that can win it all. I believe this is a place we can get that done.”
“Quarterbacks, they don’t get old — they just get better,” Miller told Yahoo Sports over Zoom on Tuesday. “We’ve seen Tom Brady do it and seen other quarterbacks get up there in age, Philip Rivers and all those guys.
“They get more knowledge. They get more savvy. Quarterbacks, they can play forever for sure.”
While Brady still played and even won Super Bowls as a quadragenarian, the NFL world is fresh off seeing nine-time Pro Bowl and Super Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson’s performance sputter when traded after 10 years with the Seattle Seahawks.
Could Rodgers similarly struggle to adapt?
That’s where Hackett comes in.
Savior or setback? Time is ticking for Rodgers, Jets
It’s ironic that the same head coach whose partnership so thoroughly failed with Wilson in Denver — Hackett was fired less than a season in after going 4-11 — is the coach who could be a key reason Rodgers succeeds in the move.
The results from Wilson’s partnership with Sean Payton this season will help contextualize what went wrong in Denver in 2022, and how much Wilson has left in the tank. In Green Bay, Rodgers and Hackett will move to a similar tune.
Rodgers spoke Wednesday about spending offseason time at Jets headquarters, saying he’ll be there “for the foreseeable future” acclimating to his new facility, teammates and staff.
“Obviously I know the scheme Hack’s putting in, there’s some tweaks,” Rodgers said. “I think the excitement of a new chapter has really been fueling my offseason workouts so far.”
And Rodgers’ style of play actually bodes well for an aging quarterback, as Miller explained. One of the defining traits fueling his success is the same awareness that Miller has seen in five games vs. Rodgers.
“He has a special ability to watch the pass rush with both eyes and then look down the field at receivers and coverages with both eyes,” Miller said. “He just has this vision and feel of the game. He’s really elusive not because he’s fast, not because he can run, but because his awareness of the pocket is Hall of Fame-worthy, for sure.”
Still, there is and should be a sense of urgency at Florham Park. Because even if Rodgers can play several more years, it’s not clear he wants to. The Jets knew that when they surrendered a 2023 second-round draft pick and conditional 2024 second-round pick (as long as Rodgers plays 65% of snaps this season, the Packers will get a first) in addition to swaps.
Team owner Woody Johnson told reporters he had “no” hesitancy, “none,” about paying the price without Rodgers assuring he’ll play more than one year.
Rodgers was vague when asked whether the Jets inquired into his plans to play past 2023.
“There wasn’t any specific conversation that I would like to share with that,” he said.
So the Jets will emphasize the “now” in their aggressive, win-now strategy, hoping that Rodgers can help win a championship for a team that hasn’t reached the postseason since 2010.
Rodgers didn’t shy away from those sky-high expectations, saying he “noticed, walking in this morning, that the Super Bowl III trophy is looking a little lonely.”
He hopes this new marriage will prove fruitful not only for him, and not only for his beloved offensive coordinator, but also for the entire Jets organization.
“To be a part of something special is what really keeps you coming back,” Rodgers said. “I’m not here to be a savior of any kind. I’m just here to be the best quarterback I can be, to lead authentically and to inspire the guys around me to raise their level of play to an even greater spot.”