Robert Saleh saved the picture on his phone: Aaron Rodgers in a No. 8 New York Jets jersey carrying the American flag as he ran out of the tunnel for the season opener.
That night, Sept. 11, MetLife Stadium was as loud as ever for a Jets game, the fans cheering for Rodgers and what he represented for a tortured franchise. Saleh sometimes shares that photo with others to remind them what the Jets were supposed to be in 2023, before Rodgers suffered a torn Achilles four plays into New York’s first offensive drive of the season.
The injury forced the Jets to recalibrate their expectations, Super Bowl aspirations replaced by a much lower bar: seven wins. That would be enough to get them to 2024, when Rodgers would return.
The goal was no longer the playoffs. It was survival.
New York met that seven-win goal, but losing Rodgers exposed problems latent in the operation — the biggest of which may have been a belief that the quarterback’s play and persona could paper over flaws within the coaching staff, offensive personnel and the team’s culture.
To better understand the issues that contributed to another failed Jets season, The Athletic spoke to 30 sources in and around the organization, some of whom were granted anonymity to speak freely about the inner workings of the team without reprisal. Those sources described a team riddled with excuse-making, a paranoid head coach, an ill-equipped offensive coordinator and an organizational tunnel vision on the quarterback that rubbed some teammates wrong.
The Jets declined The Athletic’s request for comment. Rodgers did not respond to a text requesting comment.
In an oft-repeated conflict at Florham Park, a star-studded defense that kept New York in games grew frustrated that the offense couldn’t find a way to put up more points. And offensive players felt like Rodgers’ hand-picked offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett, failed to adjust after losing his quarterback and didn’t put them in positions to succeed. The Jets lost five games by 20 or more points and extended the longest playoff drought in the four major North American professional sports to 13 years.
“It’s just such a f—ing mess,” one Jets coach said. “Something has to change.”
Rodgers sat down at a long conference table on Aug. 31 surrounded by reporters. Years earlier, Brett Favre sat at the same table in the same room, the former Packers star having become a Jet because Rodgers was ready to take over in Green Bay.
“I hope that’s the only thing that’s deja vu,” Rodgers said with a smile.
In 2008, owner Woody Johnson desperately wanted to add a big name to sell tickets as the Jets prepared to move to MetLife. Favre lasted only one season, which started well (with an 8-3 record), but the team finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs. Head coach Eric Mangini, promised by Johnson he’d be safe before the trade occurred, was fired. Favre was released.
Fifteen years later, when Rodgers became available, Johnson was starstruck — again.
To woo the four-time All-Pro, the owner approved the hiring of Hackett on Jan. 26. Rodgers won MVP awards in 2020 and 2021 after Hackett was hired as the Packers’ coordinator in 2019, and the quarterback developed a close friendship with the coach. But Hackett was also coming to New York fresh off a disastrous 15-game run as head coach of the Denver Broncos, a performance his replacement, Sean Payton, called “one of the worst coaching jobs in the history of the NFL.”
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The Jets made Rodgers comfortable in other ways, pursuing some of his former Green Bay teammates and other friends in free agency before he officially joined the team in April. They signed wide receiver Allen Lazard to a $44 million deal on March 14, the first day of free agency, courted Odell Beckham Jr. before he signed with the Ravens and then added receiver Randall Cobb, tackle Billy Turner and quarterback Tim Boyle after Rodgers signed with New York. Rodgers also had offensive lineman David Bakhtiari and tight end Marcedes Lewis on his wish list.
The quarterback stuck around for offseason workouts, a rarity when he was with the Packers. On the field and in meetings, he put everything he had into changing the culture of the organization. He had felt shut out by Green Bay GM Brian Gutekunst and betrayed when Gutekunst drafted heir apparent Jordan Love in 2020. In New York, Rodgers was afforded a direct line of communication to general manager Joe Douglas.
It’s not uncommon for team decision-makers to consult star quarterbacks on potential roster additions, but the perception around the league was the Jets went beyond the norm. “Rodgers isn’t the assistant GM,” one AFC general manager said. “Joe Douglas is the assistant GM.”
Rodgers made an effort to get to know his teammates and built friendships over lunch in the team cafeteria and on trips to New York City. He pulled teammates aside during practice to offer pointers — coaches, too — and took former starter Zach Wilson under his wing.
Wilson had been a bitter disappointment since being drafted No. 2 overall in 2021 (23 career passing touchdowns, 25 interceptions in 34 games). In 2022, he was benched twice, and the Jets publicly pursued his replacement in the offseason.
This was supposed to be Wilson’s redshirt year, when the 24-year-old could sit back, watch and learn from his idol, then potentially salvage his career. In the offseason, Wilson called Rodgers “the big brother I never had.” Rodgers helped Wilson regain his confidence, and Wilson was willing to sit and watch, but the dynamic between the two players changed after Rodgers’ injury.
Over the summer, Rodgers collaborated with Hackett to construct the offense — Saleh, as usual, was hands-off on that side of the ball. Rodgers and Hackett’s relationship dynamic is more frat brothers than player/coach, and Rodgers appreciates having the free will to operate the system as he sees fit. Both Rodgers and Hackett call the offense “quarterback friendly,” but as the Jets learned in 2023, that might only apply to one quarterback.
“That’s what Aaron wants” was a common refrain from Hackett as he told coaches what plays he wanted to run during camp. Often, Rodgers would hear Hackett’s play call and want something else, so the entire offense would reset.
Long before a litany of injuries along the offensive line (the Jets used 13 different starting combinations in 17 games), New York’s talented defensive line consistently outplayed them in practice. Growing pains were expected in a new offense full of new personnel, but one coach said it was concerning how little urgency Hackett and his staff showed in trying to fix it, saying he’d never seen a team watch less practice tape in training camp than the Jets did with Hackett.
When Rodgers went down, the Jets reached out to some veteran quarterbacks — like Chad Henne, Carson Wentz and Colt McCoy — but decided instead to roll with Wilson until (or if) Rodgers returned. Joe Flacco, who was with the Jets for parts of three seasons from 2020-22, was available, but key decision-makers inside the building didn’t think Flacco would be an upgrade, according to league sources. Flacco signed with the Browns in late November and is a finalist for Comeback Player of the Year after leading Cleveland to the playoffs.
Hackett struggled to adjust the offense to the team’s new reality. Multiple coaches and players described Hackett as lacking in attention to detail. For most of the season, Hackett would meet with offensive line coach/running game coordinator Keith Carter and passing game coordinator Todd Downing during the week but wouldn’t get together with the rest of the offensive staff until the “last minute” of game prep.
During games, Hackett struggled to make adjustments. Against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 2, Carter asked Hackett to give left tackle Duane Brown more help blocking Cowboys star pass rusher Micah Parsons, according to multiple team sources. But Hackett never adjusted, and Parsons dominated (two sacks, four QB hits) in a 30-10 loss.
In Week 6, Rodgers started flying in from California for games and was an active voice on the sideline headsets, offering opinions and ideas along with Hackett and the other offensive coaches before flying back to California the next day. The offense struggled nonetheless.
Ahead of a Week 11 game against the Bills, the Jets went younger, reducing playing time for veterans like tight end C.J. Uzomah, running back Dalvin Cook, Cobb and Lazard in favor of younger players and rookies, like sixth-round running back Israel Abanikanda, fourth-round tackle Carter Warren, undrafted receivers Jason Brownlee and Xavier Gipson and second-year tight end Jeremy Ruckert. The approach was approved by Johnson, and Hackett viewed it as an opportunity to practice the plays he’d be calling when Rodgers returned. Unsurprisingly, the offensive operation was even sloppier — the Jets led the league in pre-snap penalties and total penalties.
After a 30-0 loss to the Dolphins in Week 15, Lazard — in a season in which he would register the fewest receiving yards among 59 wide receivers to run at least 400 routes, per TruMedia, and the second-worst drop rate among wideouts with at least 30 targets, per Pro Football Focus — said New York was “out-efforted” and “out-schemed.” Those comments angered some of the team’s defensive leaders, team sources said, especially because they came from the floundering Lazard.
The Jets finished the season ranked last in third down conversions, red zone offense and total offensive EPA, 31st in total yards, 30th in offensive points per game and 30th in passing yards. They scored 10 offensive touchdowns in their first 12 games — and 18 total in 17 games.
Hackett will return as the offensive coordinator in 2024, though team and league sources say Saleh has explored adding to the offensive staff and creating a more collaborative play-calling process that would reduce Hackett’s role, a clear indication the team has lost confidence in his ability to run the offense on his own. Rodgers has been involved in those discussions.
“What happened this season can’t happen again,” said star receiver Garrett Wilson, who has played with seven quarterbacks in two seasons in New York. “We’ve gotta make adjustments in the game, we’ve gotta do things to counter what we’re getting and be able to put points on the board because two years I’ve been here, it’s been tough.
“Football hasn’t been this hard. When I watch it on the sideline, it don’t look that hard for the other team so we gotta figure out something to get it rolling no matter who is slinging it.”
Saleh has the mantra “positive vibes only” printed on T-shirts that coaches and other staffers often wear around the team facility. The Jets head coach tries to stay optimistic around players and in front of the media and has garnered respect from many in the locker room for cultivating an environment that allows players to be themselves.
But behind closed doors, the vibes weren’t always positive, especially when Saleh would see negative press reports. He would often bring up how, in his mind, the Giants don’t get as much negative coverage as the Jets, calling it unfair.
In the aftermath of Rodgers’ injury, Saleh bemoaned his bad luck. Throughout his tenure, he has often wondered aloud if he was doomed to the same fate as Vic Fangio, a brilliant defensive coach cursed by misfortune at quarterback. Fangio was fired by the Broncos in 2021 after three seasons and a 19-30 record despite building an elite defense. Saleh’s Jets — and his elite defense, ranked No. 1 in 2023 by PFF— are 18-33 in his three years as coach.
As the Jets lost games and struggled to score points, job security seemed to be Saleh’s primary concern. He wished Johnson or Rodgers would publicly endorse him for 2024.
Johnson is known around the building for being active on Twitter, consuming criticism from fans and media alike. According to team sources, Johnson often shared those opinions with Saleh in conversations about what wasn’t working on offense. Publicly, Saleh avoided criticizing Zach Wilson or even acknowledging his struggles. Privately, the coach pinned many of the team’s offensive issues on Wilson, the line and the receivers and told people getting to eight wins with Wilson at quarterback would be a “miracle.”
When the Jets lost to the Dolphins in Week 12, dropping their record to 4-7, noise about Saleh’s job security intensified. It didn’t help that Boyle threw a Hail Mary just before halftime that was picked off by defensive back Jevon Holland and returned 99 yards for a touchdown.
In the days after, an embittered Saleh conducted research. He wanted to see how teams led by the NFL’s best coaches performed when playing without their star quarterback. He found that Bill Belichick, Mike McCarthy, John Harbaugh, Zac Taylor, Mike McDaniel, Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay all had losing records in those situations — and that Mike Tomlin was the lone exception.
That became Saleh’s battle cry as the Jets’ losses piled up and criticism mounted: What do you expect? We lost Aaron Rodgers.
When Wilson was benched for Boyle ahead of the Week 12 matchup with the Dolphins, he knew his Jets career was over. According to multiple team sources, in their meeting to discuss Wilson’s benching, Saleh told the quarterback he would be inactive for the rest of the season and that the team would try to trade him in the offseason.
But in the days before the Falcons game, Saleh reversed course and told Wilson to start practicing as if he might play again. He did not play against Atlanta, but after the Jets lost, Wilson knew they were considering starting him again. He expressed reluctance about returning to play and said he would politely decline if asked, based on his previous conversation with Saleh and fears of getting injured behind the Jets’ makeshift offensive line.
Saleh asked Rodgers to speak with Wilson, to convince the young quarterback to change his mind, according to team sources. That didn’t work either. Wilson’s feelings about his idol soured over the season.
As Rodgers was pushing the limits of torn Achilles rehab, determined to return in a little over three months — an unprecedented recovery time for that injury — Wilson, along with some Jets teammates and coaches, grew tired of the way Saleh fawned over Rodgers, according to team sources.
“I think he’s sacrificed so much already for the organization and himself and his teammates and he’s doing it again,” Saleh said on Nov. 30 as he discussed Rodgers’ attempted comeback. “I think it’s a testament to who he is as a human.”
Wilson told coaches and teammates he was under the impression he’d have a direct line to Rodgers, even after Rodgers tore his Achilles and flew home to California for surgery in the early stages of his rehab. Instead, Wilson barely heard from him.
It was only after The Athletic reported about Wilson’s hesitance that he went into Saleh’s office to say he’d start against the Houston Texans that week if asked. He did, and had the best game of his career, out-dueling star rookie C.J. Stroud in a surprising 30-6 win — before suffering a concussion the next week that ended his season.
Things went sideways for Saleh after the report about Wilson’s reluctance to return to the lineup.
“That’s a problem with the organization,” Rodgers said on “The Pat McAfee Show.” “We need to get to the bottom of whatever this is coming from and put a stop to it privately, because there’s no place in a winning culture … and this isn’t the only time. There’s been a bunch of other leaks.”
That sent Saleh into a tailspin. The coach held a meeting with his staff two days later where he asked the leaker to reveal himself, according to multiple people in attendance. “If you come forward now, you won’t get in trouble,” he told them while threatening to take their cell phones. Staffers were bemused by Saleh’s obsession with the Wilson story and his reaction to it.
The uncertainty around the 2024 season lingered until Rodgers publicly endorsed Saleh and Douglas a few days before a Week 16 game against the Commanders on Christmas Eve. Before the game, Johnson told the New York Post that Saleh and Douglas would both be returning.
A few weeks later, coaching heavyweights Belichick, Jim Harbaugh, Pete Carroll and Mike Vrabel became available, but the Jets weren’t interested.
Rodgers caused a firestorm in early January for his comments about Jimmy Kimmel on an episode of “The Pat McAfee Show,” but the Jets internally didn’t view it as an issue or even a distraction.
Ultimately, the Jets know that few athletes garner more attention than Rodgers. It’s why New York played in five prime-time games in 2023, as well as the NFL’s first Black Friday game, and why HBO wanted to follow the Jets around in training camp for their “Hard Knocks” series.
The added attention wasn’t always a good thing.
“Some of the stuff in the offseason with Aaron, with ‘Hard Knocks,’ I feel like we lost track of some things,” star cornerback Sauce Gardner said, adding, “When there’s a lot of cameras and a lot of stuff going on, you can lose track of the main thing. At the end of the day, we still got to win.”
When the Jets activated Rodgers’ 21-day practice window ahead of the Week 13 game against the Falcons, there was legitimate belief from Rodgers, Saleh and others in the organization that he would be able to return if the Jets (4-7 at the time) could remain in playoff contention. Instead, they were eliminated after a loss to the Dolphins in Week 15.
Morale improved once Rodgers returned to the team full-time at the start of that window and especially when he started practicing. He spent more time around the facility, and his work on the scout team served as a window into what life might’ve been like had he never gotten hurt.
“He was picking us apart, throwing dimes in there,” linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “You kind of catch yourself looking at it again like, dang, it’s Aaron Rodgers throwing the ball.”
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Rodgers was voted the team’s “most inspirational” player at the end of the season, which, he said, nearly brought him to tears. “The ‘what if?’ kind of hits you in the face pretty hard,” Rodgers said, “because, obviously, if you saw what we were able to do, there’s a lot of what could have been.”
This offseason, the Jets will try to fix issues on the offensive line, at wide receiver and backup quarterback, but ultimately the organization believes the solution to most of its problems is simple: the return of Rodgers. It’s a risky proposition since he’s 40 and coming off an Achilles injury. But Rodgers welcomes doubters — it motivates him.
In the locker room, there was often a scooter propped up against Rodgers’ locker, which he’d sometimes use around the facility for his surgically repaired Achilles. On the back, there’s a fake New Jersey license plate with two words: WATCH ME.
For those in and around the Jets who witnessed a franchise turned over to an aging superstar and a season destroyed just minutes in, the hope is that betting big on Rodgers this time is the only thing that feels like deja vu.
“Aaron will be an offense in itself because that’s what he brings to the table,” Garrett Wilson said. “He’s special. I just pray that everyone in the world gets to see that next year. But what happened this year can’t happen again.”
(Top illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: John Fisher and Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)