How Aaron Rodgers turned the Jets into believers

The Athletic has live coverage of Jets vs. Bills in Aaron Rodgers’ debut for New York on Monday Night Football

Not long after Aaron Rodgers took his first steps into the New York Jets facility on April 26, he went to a team meeting, took off his shoes and walked around barefoot. Now, five months into the Rodgers-Jets marriage, the team seems to be convinced he can walk on water.

That day, shoes on, Rodgers went into the team auditorium for his introductory news conference and pointed out that the Jets’ “Super Bowl III trophy is looking a little lonely.” They won that title in 1968 with Joe Namath and haven’t accomplished a whole lot since — winning the division three times and making the playoffs 13 times in the last 55 years. The Jets have a 12-year playoff drought, the longest in the NFL. Rarely have they gone into a season feeling like they had a legitimate shot at winning the Super Bowl.

“I’m not showing up here to be part of a team that I think is OK,” Rodgers said that day. “Every year there’s a handful of teams that can win it. Most people don’t say that out loud. They say in training camp the goal is the same for all 32 teams, but in actuality there’s anywhere from eight to 12 teams that can actually do it — and I believe we’re one of those teams.”

Rodgers famously told Packers fans in 2014 to “R-E-L-A-X.” His message since the moment he joined the Jets: B-E-L-I-E-V-E.

He won a Super Bowl, four MVPs and made 10 Pro Bowls in 18 years with the Packers. At 39, he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning. He isn’t hiding from expectations.

“I visualize (winning the Super Bowl) all the time,” Rodgers said recently. “That’s part of training your mind and being intentional with your words about the manifestation of those thoughts and goals and dreams into reality. You first have to have that belief. I believe strongly in that. That’s why we talk about it, we don’t shy away from it.”

This offseason has been a mix of bluster and bliss, five months of fawning over one of the best throwers of the football in NFL history. He controls the offense like Peyton Manning used to. He’s tried to influence how his teammates interact with each other. He keeps receivers and offensive linemen on their toes with pop quizzes about hand signals and cadence. And he has a direct line to general manager Joe Douglas, something he always wanted in Green Bay with Brian Gutekunst. He redid his contract and saved the Jets $35 million to help improve the roster — and allow them to sign someone like Dalvin Cook, a four-time Pro Bowler.

Rodgers’ messaging is echoing through the halls in Florham Park: There is no more time to build, it’s time to win. Now.

Robert Saleh called the Jets one of six or eight teams that can win it all in a bold declaration for an NFL coach. Tight end C.J. Uzomah recently went on television and said “our expectation is to go to the playoffs and win a Super Bowl.” Cornerback D.J. Reed compared the Jets’ defense to the 1985 Bears.

“I look at it like we have a small window,” said defensive lineman John Franklin-Myers. “When you have a team like this, when you have a great defense, when you have a Hall of Fame quarterback, when you have a well-built roster, you have to take advantage of this because these teams don’t happen every year.

“We really have to maximize this opportunity right now. It’s time to go out and show everybody. You can celebrate when you get to the finish line or you can celebrate when you cross the finish line, and that’s our plan — to celebrate when we’re holding up that trophy at the end of the year.”

When.

Can you blame them for feeling this way? Last year, the Jets shuffled through Zach Wilson, Mike White, Joe Flacco and Chris Streveler and missed the playoffs after a late-season collapse. Rodgers statistically had one of his worst seasons as a pro in 2022, with his fewest yards in a full season (3,695) and his most interceptions since 2008 (12). But he still threw 26 touchdown passes — and all of those numbers would be an improvement on what the Jets have gotten out of the QB position.

“I have worked my ass off for the last six months to try and put a better product on the field than last year,” Rodgers said. “And I expect to.”

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Monday, Rodgers will run out of the tunnel at MetLife Stadium for the season-opener against the Buffalo Bills wearing a Jets uniform, No. 8. The crowd will chant his name.

“There will be some nerves. Some butterflies,” he said. “Well, ‘nerves’ has a weird connotation. I don’t resonate with that word. Butterflies — definitely.”

How did the Jets get here? Call it the butterfly effect, those small moments over the last eight months that got the Jets to this moment. Change anything, and they might not be where they are now, talking about winning a Super Bowl — and believing it.

“One thing has happened almost every single day,” Rodgers said, “that just reminds me I’m in the right place.”

Last October, in Week 6, the Jets were Rodgers’ opponent in Green Bay, nothing more. Rodgers remembers marveling at Breece Hall, who messed up a trick play, improvised, then ran 34 yards for a touchdown anyway. He wondered why Garrett Wilson, who had one catch, wasn’t getting the ball more. He was especially impressed with Sauce Gardner, Quinnen Williams and the Jets defense, which stifled him all afternoon.

The Jets won 27-10, a high point of their 2022 season. Rodgers saw a young team, full of talent, headed in the right direction.

The Jets won only three more games, losing seven of their last eight after starting 6-3, a brutal collapse that put the heat on Saleh and Douglas to find a solution as if their jobs depended on it, which they do. Zach Wilson was no longer an option as a starting quarterback after getting benched for Streveler during a Week 15 game against the Jaguars with playoff implications.

When Saleh and Douglas met with owner Woody Johnson after the season, they laid out a plan to upgrade at quarterback and make changes to the offensive staff. Rodgers was at the top of a lengthy list — the other top targets: Derek Carr, Ryan Tannehill and Matthew Stafford — but merely a pipe dream.

“I thought it was very unrealistic,” Douglas said. “And then, as the days went along … it became, with every passing day: This could really happen.”

By the time Rodgers exited his darkness retreat in February, the Jets knew they had a shot. On March 15 on “The Pat McAfee Show,” he made his intentions clear. On April 24, when the trade with the Packers was finally completed, one Jets assistant remarked: “I just became a better coach today.”

Nathaniel Hackett was hesitant to jump right back in. The wounds were still fresh from his only season as Broncos head coach, when he was roundly mocked for various decision-making blunders before getting fired after just 15 games.

Saleh needed a new offensive coordinator after parting ways in the offseason with Mike LaFleur. He interviewed 15 candidates and requested to talk to a few others but kept coming back to Hackett, with whom he worked in Jacksonville in 2015 and 2016. LaFleur struggled to connect with Jets players on a personal level, especially Zach Wilson. Hackett is an experienced, if flawed, play-caller well-known for his rambunctious energy, with an emphasis on connection and positive reinforcement.

A few younger candidates impressed during the interview process, but Saleh wanted to hire someone with play-calling experience. It didn’t hurt that Hackett, the Packers’ offensive coordinator, is close with Rodgers, who was still weighing his future during this process. Eventually, Hackett relented. He was hired as the Jets’ offensive coordinator on Jan. 26.

“A big reason I’m here … is Nathaniel Hackett,” Rodgers said at his first news conference. “I love him like a brother.”

Rodgers and Hackett worked together in constructing the Jets’ offense, incorporating concepts that worked best during Rodgers’ MVP seasons in 2020 and 2021, with those from Hackett’s coaching stops with the Broncos, Jaguars and Bills. Todd Downing (passing game coordinator) and Keith Carter (offensive line coach/run game coordinator), both recently fired by the Titans, also contributed ideas.

Behind the scenes, Downing quietly emerged during training camp as a crucial part of the operation. The former Raiders and Titans OC is close with Hackett from their time working together with the Bills in 2014 and quickly developed a bond with Rodgers. He runs the QB room, helps manage the offensive coaching staff and, most importantly, has the quarterback’s ear.

“I’m loving Todd, I really am,” Rodgers said during training camp. “I pulled him aside multiple times, like after a little individual drills, and just said — because I believe in positive reinforcement — ‘That’s a great drill.’ I think he does a really good job of teaching the position.”

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In training camp, Downing handled the scripted plays — typically the first 15 to 20 plays in a game — though it’s unclear if that will continue into the regular season. Hackett said that play-calling will be a “collaborative” effort, though he will ultimately be the one sending the plays in to Rodgers.

“I am whispering sweet nothings to him throughout the game,” Hackett said, smiling.

Ultimately, it’s the quarterback’s show.

“It’s the Aaron Rodgers offense,” said Jets receiver Allen Lazard, another close friend and a teammate for five years in Green Bay. “When he’s on the field, the whole playbook is open at any given time. Even during Day 1 of practice, he might pull up a (hand) signal, or he might do something we never talked about in meetings.”

“Every day is a new challenge,” Garrett Wilson said recently. “There’s definitely a learning curve.”

Grant Hermanns, an offensive lineman, spent parts of the 2021 and 2022 seasons with the Jets, but was walking into unfamiliar territory when he rejoined them on Aug. 8. Before his first practice, Hermanns asked Carter if he wanted to go over cadence — the words and numbers a quarterback calls out after players line up, usually ending in “hike” or “hut” before the ball is snapped.

Carter’s response: Talk to Aaron.

Rodgers, well known for constantly changing his cadence to keep the defense off balance, has caused defensive players to jump offsides 18 times over the last five seasons, per TruMedia. Eight times, it led to free plays, including one touchdown pass. It happened throughout training camp with Jets defensive linemen. The hard part is not tricking the offensive linemen into jumping, too.

“There’s more cadences than I even know,” Carter said. “Half of them he hasn’t even told the coaches. … We’ve all been doing this a long time but I’ve never seen anybody like Aaron who sees the field and can make adjustments at the line. So you’ve gotta be on it with cadences, you’ve gotta be ready to change gears and totally flip the script at any time. It’s really fun, but it is really challenging.”

“It’s a process,” Rodgers said. “You’ve just gotta test them all the time. It’ll evolve from one count, two counts, one hut, two hut, three huts, quick counts, dummy stuff, and you do something long enough, you get bored, throw something in your cadence, see if it works. Throw it out if it doesn’t work. But a lot of trial and error.”

Then, there are the hand signals. In Green Bay, young receivers struggled at times to get in tune with Rodgers’ ever-changing signals at the line of scrimmage, which he uses to change a route or a concept. He’s constantly quizzing his teammates during walkthroughs, in drills and in team meetings to make sure they’re up to date.

Wide receiver Mecole Hardman admitted to struggling as he first adjusted to playing with Rodgers, and he wasn’t alone. To simplify things, Rodgers said he eliminated some signals he’s used throughout his career to get everyone flowing in the same direction.

“The most important thing is that I have to make sure we’re all on the same page,” he said Thursday. “I’m not going to put anything on their plate that we haven’t talked about, or repped, or worked on.”

Garrett Wilson has thrived under Rodgers’ guidance. The two sit next to each other in team meetings and text constantly. On the field, they’re already at a level where Rodgers can simply nod in Wilson’s direction, and last year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year knows what to do. The connection is similar to the one Rodgers has with Lazard and Randall Cobb after years spent together in Green Bay.

“It truly elevates the whole receiver room, it makes us lock in on our details, take note of everything, be able to take the meeting rooms right to the field and execute it,” Wilson said. “For me, it’s just keeping my eyes on him and then realizing when he’s going to snap, and getting used to his rhythm and cadence so that I’m not missing one of his signals just because I’m so locked in on the ball. … I had to start doing it a few months ago. Now I’m good with it so that I can do it in the game.”

He added: “Aaron sees the game in a really natural, pure way, like playing in the backyard, which is awesome for the receivers and really anyone that plays with him. It makes it really fun — and it just makes sense.”

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By his own admission, Rodgers is approaching things differently with his Jets teammates than he did in Green Bay. He’s less prone to blow-ups, though “Hard Knocks” showed he can’t help but fire off some F-bombs when he’s frustrated.

“I’m going to be very patient with certain guys, and with certain guys I’m going to up the urgency,” Rodgers said. “You can’t coach or lead every player the same way.”

Lazard said when Rodgers used to cuss him out in Green Bay, or give him a “dirty look,” it motivated him to not repeat the same mistake. But now, Rodgers is “just a lot more relaxed, and not letting things slide, but not being so hard to come down on people when they mess up in certain situations. … In the past, it was: If it was installed, you better know it.

“With (Rodgers), it’s all about just teaching improv,” Lazard said. “That’s the beauty of the game, a lot of it is improv. We called a play, and it’s not how we called it after the snap, but we’re able to get the chains moving and score a touchdown.”

Rodgers has done a lot of work in the team cafeteria, observing who is sitting with whom, who is sitting alone and who is buried in their phones. He said his goal is to have lunch with everybody on the roster to learn something about them.

“It creates a special bond between you and that person where it’s just between you and that person,” Rodgers said. “You can call them something or you remember specific things like a kid’s name or a birthday or an important event in their life, ask them about somebody that you met from the previous week, maybe at practice, his wife, whatever it might be. Something to let that person know you care about them opens up the door to be able to figure out how to push their buttons the right way.”

Wide receiver Xavier Gipson, an undrafted rookie, said he’s had lunch with Rodgers a few times. “It’s very special,” Gipson said. “He’s cool, man. He just wants to know you. That’s the best feeling, somebody of that high caliber wants to sit around you, to be around you.”

Rodgers calls Cook “Cooky,” Cobb “Cobby” and Breece Hall “Bryce,” just to mess with him. He has signature handshakes with many teammates.

After the preseason game against the Panthers on Aug. 12, offensive tackle Mekhi Becton put his arm around Rodgers’ shoulders.

“I’m proud of you,” Rodgers told the fourth-year pro who has played just one regular-season game the past two years due to injuries. Then Rodgers asked him to lunch.

Becton said they ate “a bunch of fish and veggies” and talked about life.

“Him understanding what I’ve been through and the work I’ve been putting in — it’s dope to have somebody like that on your side,” Becton said.

Rodgers has been to Knicks and Rangers games, to Broadway shows, the Tony Awards and the U.S. Open. He went to the Taylor Swift concert at MetLife Stadium (twice), and Ed Sheeran’s, too. He talks about smiling every time he drives through the tunnel and comes out the other side in New York City. At the Jets facility, he’s met Liev Schreiber, Method Man and Ralph Macchio. John McEnroe was there on Thursday. All were there to see him.

These guys are EVERYWHERE@AaronRodgers12 & @cj_uzomah showing love at the #TonyAwards! pic.twitter.com/J6DmWT3MKP

— New York Jets (@nyjets) June 12, 2023

Rodgers is enjoying his moment. The Jets still can’t believe it’s real. Douglas said he shakes his head “five or six times a day” watching Rodgers work. “It’s surreal,” he said.

Becton said he’s “star-struck,” even when he’s in the huddle. Teammates, coaches, they all can’t stop smiling. Butterflies.

“This has felt like waking up inside of a dream, this whole experience, a beautiful dream,” Rodgers said. “There’s a lot of times — I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — where I just look around and say: This is my life now.

“How cool is this?”

The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.

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