When will Aaron Rodgers play again for the Jets? Key dates and games to watch

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Aaron Rodgers is back. Sort of.

The New York Jets on Wednesday activated Rodgers’ 21-day practice window to be brought off injured reserve, which means they now have three weeks to determine if he’ll be able to play. If those three weeks pass and the Jets don’t activate him, Rodgers’ season will be over.

But the Jets thought Rodgers’ season was over anyway, after he suffered a torn Achilles four plays into the Week 1 game. What has happened since then has changed everyone’s tune. Rodgers’ remarkable feat of recovery had him back on the practice field just 11 weeks after his Sept. 13 surgery to repair the Achilles. For reference: Players historically have taken nine months to a year (sometimes longer) to return from Achilles tears, though Rams running back Cam Akers returned in less than six months after suffering the injury in July 2021.

The Jets’ dreams of getting Rodgers back this season at least came closer to a reality on Wednesday, though coach Robert Saleh tempered expectations.

This was simply the next step in Rodgers’ rehab, Saleh said. Rodgers only worked off to the side with other injured players and threw some passes in positional drills Wednesday alongside Tim Boyle, Trevor Siemian and Zach Wilson.

“This isn’t so much getting ready to play as much as it is a progression in his rehab,” Saleh said. “There are certain things that he’s been cleared for that we’re going to allow him to do.”

.@AaronRodgers12 spinnin’ it 👀 pic.twitter.com/kyu00tUIis

— New York Jets (@nyjets) November 29, 2023

There are still plenty of steps between Rodgers’ return to the practice field and his return to actual game action, including getting cleared for contact and participating in position drills. Rodgers ran some light dropbacks on Wednesday, took some snaps from under center and worked on some play-action passes. His footwork was slower than that of his teammates, though that’s to be expected at this stage.

Tuesday, Rodgers said on “The Pat McAfee Show” that he’s considering two factors when it comes to a possible return: his health, and whether the Jets are still in playoff contention.

The Jets have less than a 1 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to the New York Times’ NFL playoff simulator.

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“I promise Aaron is not going to do anything that puts himself in harm’s way,” Saleh said. “If he is not healthy to play, Aaron is very, very smart. That’s not something he’s going to put himself at risk for.”

Saleh wasn’t ready to say if Rodgers would be activated before the end of his 21-day window. But if Rodgers returns, when might that happen?

Let’s run through the possibilities, in order:

Week 13 vs. Atlanta Falcons (Dec. 3)

Time since surgery: 11 weeks, four days. Chance: None. Why: Unless Rodgers traveled to some faraway land and found some mushrooms that could heal torn tendons (maybe we shouldn’t rule that out entirely), we can safely assume Rodgers won’t play on Sunday.

The Jets’ playoff chances would still be less than 1 percent with a win over Atlanta, per the New York Times playoff simulator. The odds would jump to 2 percent if they win two games in a row, 9 percent with three wins in a row, 15 percent with four and 43 percent with five. On the flip side, if the Jets lose to the Falcons, even winning their remaining five games would get them to just a 17 percent chance of making the playoffs.

The point: If the Jets lose to the Falcons, it might effectively end any prospect of Rodgers returning this season.

Week 14 vs. Houston Texans (Dec. 10)

Time since surgery: 12 weeks, five days. Chance: More than zero, but still close to zero. Why: If Rodgers gets through light practice work this week unscathed and scales up his workload to include team drills next week — with doctor approval — this is still not going to happen.

Week 15 at Miami Dolphins (Dec. 17)

Time since surgery: 13 weeks, four days. Chances: Still unlikely, but now we’re at least talking about it. Why: At this point, Rodgers will have gone through nine practice sessions, excluding walkthroughs. The key, though, will be whether he’s progressed into more intensive workouts, practices and been cleared for contact. The Jets would still have a few days to activate him from injured reserve before the window closed, and I imagine they’d prefer to err on the side of caution — but if Rodgers progresses rapidly between now and that week of practices before the Dolphins game, maybe there’s a chance. Color me skeptical. Keep in mind, his return timetable would be unprecedented in all of these scenarios.

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Week 16 vs. Washington Commanders (Dec. 24)

Time since surgery: 14 weeks, four days. Chance: Possible, though still doubtful. Why: This has been Rodgers’ reported target date over the last few weeks and it would track in terms of his practice timetable. The Jets would have to activate him off injured reserve by Wednesday, Dec. 20. Otherwise, he’d be shut down for the season. The team could mirror what it’s doing right now with offensive tackle Duane Brown: activate Rodgers off injured reserve but not play him as he continues to rehab. That seems possible. If he reverts to season-ending injured reserve, he wouldn’t be able to practice. So even if the Jets ultimately have decided at this point they don’t want Rodgers to play in a game, they could activate him anyway to get him some legitimate practice reps, giving everyone something to build on going into the offseason.

Or, there’s the flip side: The Jets manage to keep their head above water over the next three games, Rodgers progresses enough to play and all parties decide that he’s ready on Christmas Eve in a winnable game against a bad Washington team.

Week 17 at Cleveland Browns (Dec. 28)

Time since surgery: 15 weeks, one day. Chance: Possible, but considering all factors … still unlikely. Why: If Rodgers truly will return only if the Jets have something to play for, that decreases the likelihood he would come back this late in the season. There is little reason to believe that the Jets will play well enough over the next four games to keep their playoff hopes alive: They’re 14th of 15 AFC teams in the standings, with one of the least-productive offenses in the NFL. So if Rodgers were to return at this point, it would be a little more self-serving: To prove to his doubters that he was able to come back this quickly at all.

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Maybe there would be some benefit to Rodgers getting reps with the Jets offense going into the offseason, but most NFL people say momentum doesn’t really carry over from the end of the season to the offseason. Also, what if Rodgers plays … and plays poorly?

“He is old school in the sense that he is driven. Is there a motivation to be the first to ever do it? Sure. That’s OK. That is his why,” Saleh said.

Week 18 at New England Patriots (Jan. 7)

Time since surgery: 16 weeks, four days. Chance: For his debut? Slim. Why: If Rodgers hasn’t returned by this point, there is little reason to believe he or the Jets would be OK with him playing in a meaningless season-ending game and risking another injury. Maybe Rodgers would be open to getting a snap or a pass in some ceremonial capacity, so he could say he did it, but for the sake of this discussion … that’s not what we’re really talking about here.

2024 Week 1 (TBD, September 2024)

Time since surgery: Approximately one year. Chance: Likely. Why: If there are no setbacks between now and the start of next season, then there is no reason to believe that a 40-year-old Rodgers wouldn’t be ready to go in Week 1. By then, the conversation will turn to how much Rodgers, coming off Achilles surgery, has left in the tank — and if he can make it through a season behind whatever the Jets’ offensive line looks like next year.

Prediction

Rodgers’ return to the practice field this soon after surgery is remarkable. That we are even discussing Rodgers’ potential return to game action three months after Achilles surgery is unprecedented. That doesn’t mean it will happen, though. The risks far outweigh the rewards, especially as the Jets stumble through another losing season.

(Top photo: Elsa / Getty Images)

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