As Aaron Rodgers returns to Jets practice, there might be a good reason he's pushed so hard to come back

With the death rattle for the New York Jets’ 2023 season looming, the question put to head coach Robert Saleh this past Friday night was unavoidable, if not entirely predictable.

The quarterback spot without Aaron Rodgers is a mess. The offensive line is a wasteland of injury. The defense is frustrated. And the franchise's immediate future is looking hauntingly familiar to last season, when the same issues cascaded into what is becoming an annual carbon copy of failure and bewilderment. And with it, the one question that will stalk Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas for the next six weeks. The query was aimed directly at the head coach, after a 34-13 loss to the Miami Dolphins.

Are you worried about your job security?

“No I’m not,” Saleh said. “I’m not worried about it.”

It has since rippled outward, of course. The surrounding media and fan base has expanded that question to include Douglas — and by extension, the entire Jets coaching staff and front office. That’s how this works. You fire the head coach, you’re essentially firing his entire staff. You fire the general manager, the clock starts on everyone else in the personnel department.

But a better question might be this: Is Rodgers, for whom the Jets opened the 21-day practice window on Wednesday, worried about the job security of his head coach and general manager?

If Rodgers is, could that be playing a part in why he’s pushed so hard to return to this sinking (and very likely sunken) season?

Certainly that would be a very reasonable answer to the “why” that surrounds Rodgers when it comes to him trying to get back onto the field by late December, despite a postseason window likely being long dead. From the logical standpoint rehabilitating his torn Achilles, the sheer risk of compressing a best-case six-month timeline into a miraculous four months seems overzealous at best … and absolutely reckless at worst.

Unless there is something bigger at stake than making history. And given the considerable heat intensifying beneath the decision-making thrones inside the Jets, there might be.

Stop for a moment and consider what could happen if Rodgers manages to get himself back onto a football field by late December. Set aside the record-setting return from a medical vantage. And forget for a moment that it would essentially be kick-starting the beginning of the 2024 Jets campaign.

Think of the impact Rodgers could have on the late-season narratives surrounding Saleh and Douglas. Right now, in the midst of accumulating failure and escalating autopsies on their performances, it’s easy to see where this is heading the next several weeks. Barring an unexpected and unlikely turnaround in the next three weeks, the most consistent questions about the Jets by late December will orbit who should be fired and why it’s a necessity. The list of names will start just below ownership and might as well trace down to the janitorial staff.

There might actually be method to Aaron Rodgers' (apparent) madness in trying to return from an Achilles tear this same season. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)
There might actually be method to Aaron Rodgers' (apparent) madness in trying to return from an Achilles tear this same season. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

Now consider if Rodgers can somehow inject himself into that conversation as an agent of change — or at the very least, a reminder of what this was all supposed to look like. Maybe a glimpse back to training camp and early September, when everything seemed possible for the Jets, with a subtle reminder from Rodgers that he was always the one piece they couldn’t afford to lose. Regardless of who the backup quarterback was, or how the injuries played out, or what the snowballing failure did to the team’s psyche, the simple truth to the Jets in 2023 has always been singular.

They could never afford to lose Rodgers. And when they did, the loftiest goals of the 2023 season were lost with him.

It didn’t suddenly make Saleh a worse coach. It didn’t suddenly transform Douglas into a worse general manager. If anything, it exposed them — along with ownership — as a collection of gamblers. They all gambled on Rodgers and lost in the worst way possible. But there’s still a decision to be made about the 2024 season, and Rodgers can still impact that decision before 2023 ends.

Does it still seem unlikely, despite Rodgers returning to the practice field? Yes. Until he actually takes a snap in a game in December, it all seems wildly fanciful. But there’s little doubt that if he does, and it goes well, it could stave off some significant firings in January. The guy who was the gamble can save the guys who gambled on him.

Jets team owner Woody Johnson (left) drew from experience with signing Brett Favre in 2008 in negotiating a trade for Aaron Rodgers. (REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk)
Jets team owner Woody Johnson (left) drew from experience with signing Brett Favre in 2008 in negotiating a trade for Aaron Rodgers. (REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk)

Of course, Woody Johnson is an important figure in all of this — not just because he owns the Jets, but also because he has the institutional memory of the team’s ill-fated Brett Favre acquisition in 2008. A source close to Johnson told Yahoo Sports that part of the reason the Jets owner weighed in so heavily during the compensation phase of the Rodgers pursuit was because he knew the danger of a dice roll on an aging superstar quarterback.

Johnson lived it in that lone season with Favre, which saw the quarterback suffer a torn biceps tendon that manifested as considerable pain in his throwing shoulder. The team hid the injury by never revealing it on reports, but ultimately suffered consequences anyway during a brutal five-game stretch to close the season, dropping the Jets from an 8-3 start to a 9-7 finish. Favre’s poor play factored heavily in that stumble, leaving the Jets out of the postseason and rebooting the entire coaching staff alongside the quarterback position.

There was a bitterness that lingered from that experience for Johnson, largely because it squandered a season and roster that had lofty goals. Instead of a prolonged playoff run or Super Bowl appearance, Johnson had to suffer the consequences of risking a good team on an old quarterback. The lone upside? The Jets had protected the draft pick they sent to the Green Bay Packers for Favre, making it heavily predicated on postseason success. A Super Bowl run would have graduated the pick all the way to first-round compensation. Instead, missing the playoffs altogether left the Jets on the hook for nothing more than a third-rounder.

Back in March, you could trace that entire fiasco to the Rodgers negotiations, when Douglas and Johnson balked at the Packers’ insistence of getting a no-strings-attached first-round pick as part of a deal. Johnson knew the risk involved — and for his part, Douglas knew it too — and that ultimately resulted in a mildly protected 2024 first-round draft pick, with Rodgers needing to play only 65 percent of the team’s offensive snaps to graduate a second-rounder to a first. Basically, the very durable Rodgers would only need to avoid an injury disaster and the Jets would end up conveying their 2024 first-round pick to the Packers.

Four snaps into his season, Rodgers ruptured his Achilles. Along with it, the Packers lost their only shot at what will now likely end up as a top-10 selection.

The unfolding of all of this is important because it gives you a window into two realities. First, Johnson came out of that 2008 experience with Favre feeling burned; second, it played a part in backstopping the downside of the Rodgers trade so many years later, which showcases that Johnson understood the risk of the entire endeavor.

That’s important now because it should be part of Johnson’s processing when it comes to what went wrong. Yes, the Jets' front office and coaching staff gambled on something that carried downside. But he played a role in that gamble as well. He wasn’t talked into it, or tricked into it, or duped in some way. He was an active participant in the pursuit of Rodgers and he ultimately signed off on the risk once the first-round pick protection was in place.

Now he has to decide whether to separate himself from Douglas and Saleh, and effectively point a finger — which is what any firings would be. But like the fan base, media and even doubters inside the building, Johnson can be swayed. And most of all, he can still be swayed by Rodgers.

Especially if he can get back onto the field and turn the clock back to September, even if it’s for a few games that won’t change anything but draft positioning.