EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Aaron Rodgers sat at the middle of a large table in a conference room at the New York Jets facility recently, and leaned back in a chair, the practice fields behind him.
A reporter told him: This is like déjà vu. Fifteen years ago, Brett Favre, Rodgers’ predecessor in Green Bay, sat at this table and spoke to a group of reporters, previewing the 2008 season, which ended terribly after a promising start.
“I hope that’s the only thing that’s déjà vu,” he said.
Then, for 35 minutes, Rodgers raved about his new life with the Jets after 18 years with the Packers. “It has felt like waking up inside of a dream,” he said. “A beautiful dream.”
And then, on Monday night, he woke up.
He is a Jet, after all, where hope springs eternal — until it dies. Sometime, months from now, Jets fans, players and coaches will look back at August and feel that way, too, that it was all a dream. It never got better than that.
Rodgers lasted only four plays, and one pass, in the Jets’ Week 1 game before succumbing to the Buffalo Bills pass rush. His left ankle twisted. He stood up, looked to the sideline, shook his head side-to-side.
He limped to the sideline, and later into the tunnel. At 8:09 p.m., he ran out of that tunnel, wielding the American flag, and MetLife Stadium rumbled.
By 8:25, he was on the ground.
“It’s not good,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said after the game. He said the team believes Rodgers suffered an Achilles injury, and if it’s ruptured, the quarterback’s season is over. An MRI is scheduled for Tuesday.
The Jets won without Rodgers, somehow, a remarkable 22-16 victory in overtime against a Bills team that fancies itself a Super Bowl contender. It’s a win worth celebrating, and the Jets did in the locker room. There was not a somber tone, but an optimistic one.
This is a team with an elite defense, after all, which forced four turnovers on quarterback Josh Allen, and sacked him five times. Running back Breece Hall ran for 127 yards on 10 carries in his first game back after tearing his ACL last year. Wide receiver Garrett Wilson made a remarkable catch for a touchdown on a 3-yard pass from Zach Wilson, tightly covered, bobbled and then tipped to himself. Undrafted rookie Xavier Gipson won the game on a zig-zagging, 65-yard punt return touchdown.
— New York Jets (@nyjets) September 12, 2023
This is a Jets team with a Super Bowl-caliber roster. Unfortunately, it just lost its Super Bowl quarterback.
“Just seeing how he responded to getting up, seeing him limp off the field, you could tell it wasn’t anything good,” said wide receiver Allen Lazard, Rodgers’ close friend from five years playing together with the Packers. “It’s almost comical with how this offseason played and for him to go down in the first game, without even completing a pass.”
“It’s just something you hate to see as a competitor, just knowing all we put into this,” Garrett Wilson said. “To see him go down in this first game so quickly, it sucks, man. I’m going to keep him in my prayers. It sucks.”
Rodgers was in the locker room at halftime, but he didn’t say anything. Garrett Wilson told him that he loved him. Lazard didn’t get to talk to him.
Wide receiver Randall Cobb, one of Rodgers’ closest friends, asked to end his interview after the game early so he could go check on the quarterback.
“You never want to lose your guy,” Cobb said. “I hate to see him go down. I really just want to get out of here so I can call him and talk to him and check on him.”
Left tackle Duane Brown gave up the sack to Leonard Floyd on the play where Rodgers was injured. Teammates, and coaches, assured Brown that it wasn’t his fault. That didn’t make it any easier.
“Yeah,” Brown said, on the verge of tears. “It sucks.”
Rodgers turns 40 in December. Assuming he does have an Achilles injury, it’s fair to wonder how motivated he’ll be to fight his way back onto the field after his recovery. By Rodgers’ own admission, he was seriously considering retirement as recently as January. But that’s a conversation for another day.
For now, the Jets have to live in this reality, where Zach Wilson is their starting quarterback again. A year ago, Wilson was benched multiple times, the last for a practice-squad quarterback (Chris Streveler) during a late-season game with playoff implications. Wide receivers privately (and sometimes, publicly) grumbled about him. If Wilson didn’t struggle so much, the Jets wouldn’t have brought Rodgers in at all.
This offseason, the Jets started from square one with Wilson. Rodgers made him his apprentice. Wilson was having fun again, he said. But if all went right this season, Wilson would’ve never seen the field, let alone in Week 1. Now he’s the Jets’ starter, Saleh said.
Zach Wilson? Matt Ryan? Someone else?
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) September 12, 2023
Wilson completed 14 of 21 passes for 140 yards, one touchdown and one interception on Monday. It was enough, even if it was bumpy. The Jets’ ceiling is capped with him at quarterback. There was no ceiling with Rodgers.
“I thought he was awesome,” Saleh said of Wilson. “We still have a lot of faith in him. I think we have proven that by keeping him here and continuing to invest in him. I am excited for him and his opportunity.”
Garrett Wilson said: “We’re excited to get to work, me and Zach.”
Running back Dalvin Cook, who signed with the Jets largely because of Rodgers, said: “I believe in him, man. He comes in the huddle, he’s confident as he can be. We gotta be better around him to help him better.”
Whatever happens now, it will always be what could’ve been.
“This is the game of football, this is the game of life. At the end of the day, you have to keep persevering, keep pushing through,” Lazard said. “We’re going to rally behind him regardless of when he’s going to be back. We’re going to support him. We’re going to love him.”
Before the game, the Jets’ three captains — C.J. Mosley, Justin Hardee and Rodgers — took the field for the coin toss. And there was an honorary captain: former Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde.
In 1999, the Jets, with a 36-year-old Testaverde, felt like they were Super Bowl contenders. In the first game, against the Patriots, Testaverde ruptured his Achilles, and his season ended.
Déjà vu, indeed.
(Photo: Elsa / Getty Images)