Aaron Rodgers played four snaps and swallowed the Jets’ season

THERE IS NO sadder emblem for the New York Jets‘ lost season than quarterback Tim Boyle‘s locker. His nameplate and number stretch across the top. His shoes are lined up on the lower shelf, his clothes hung neatly above, like the occupant will be right back to change and get on with his day. The man himself is gone from this locker, though, cut two days earlier, presumably never to return. You can look at the locker and imagine the scene: Boyle digesting the bad news and then weighing the pros and cons. He might like some of the T-shirts and a few of the shoes, but does he like them enough to go back in there? And face that?

He had started just two days before, in a desultory Week 13 loss to the Falcons, and 12 days before that in a blowout loss to the Dolphins. He was good enough to start on Sunday, not good enough to remain on the team by Tuesday. He was the Jets’ third starting quarterback this season because Aaron Rodgers tore his left Achilles on the fourth snap of the first series of the first game and because Zach Wilson was benched and because it was determined that there was really no other choice. This, in a decidedly nonlinear way, is the world Rodgers wrought.

Less than four months ago, it was unthinkable that Boyle, or Boyle’s locker, would play a role in any story of this Jets’ season. The preseason hype — from the trade for Rodgers through “Hard Knocks” to the flag-waving buildup to the Sept. 11 opener — now feels like it took place in a different geologic age. After being eliminated from the playoffs for the 13th straight season — the longest current streak of any American major pro sports team — every story about the Jets’ high hopes, every Super Bowl prediction, looks like etchings on the side of a cave.

“We threw everything we possibly could at the wall,” receiver Randall Cobb said. “Nothing stuck.” Boyle’s empty locker rhymed with Rodgers leading the 2s and 3s on the field that same week for extra drills after practice. It rhymed with Rodgers consistently teasing a remarkable, historic, unprecedented and medically impossible comeback that ended, predictably, along with the Jets’ playoff chances. It rhymed with the team’s insistence on putting hope above reason for fear of being branded one of the dreaded doubters.

And so over there, near the far-right corner of the locker room, the perfect elegy for the Jets’ 2023 season: the fully-stocked locker of a departed quarterback, the football version of an empty suit.

HIS WAS AN absence most public. With the team or not, Rodgers was the through line for an entire season, the reason for what could have been, and ultimately the reason for what wasn’t.

He was the story of the offseason with his break from the Green Bay Packers and his darkness retreat and his arrival in New York. He was the story of the preseason with his wry scene-stealing and avuncular dealings with his young teammates on “Hard Knocks.” The injury might have changed his role, but he found a way to hold center stage. If anything, it forced him to be more creative.

He remained the hero of his own story. He was a looming and unpredictable presence, on the sideline every Sunday and on ESPN every Tuesday with Pat McAfee. Less than a month into his rehabilitation, he reinserted himself in the national conversation by teasing a comeback before the end of the season. Medical science deemed it impossible; Rodgers, predictably, suggested otherwise.

“Give me your doubts, your prognostications,” Rodgers told McAfee, “and then watch what I do.” We couldn’t watch so we listened, week after week, as he told McAfee and various sideline reporters and opposing players that he was justthisclose to defying all the doubters and prognosticators he’d conjured in his head. Meanwhile, the Jets embarked on a stretch where their offense reliably scored about 80% of a touchdown per week. They scored 10 touchdowns in 12 games and went from Wilson to Boyle to Wilson to perhaps Trevor Siemian this weekend.

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Through it all, Rodgers remained the hero of his own story. Asked to assess his impact on the Jets’ organization, despite just four plays from scrimmage, he said this week on McAfee’s show, “Because of what I’ve accomplished, there’s an instant clout I come in with that allows my voice to carry a little bit of a stronger tone from the start.” And, “I’m not playing, so the vibe is different.” And, “Without me here, it’s just natural things fall back to what they have been before.”

The injury gave him time to focus on his role as America’s most preeminent contrarian, someone who takes the measure of whatever is considered mainstream and attempts to find a way to disprove it. He’s always there with a crooked grin and an eye-roll for anything he believes is uncritically adopted as universal truth, continually casting himself as the only sane man in the asylum. The idea that a torn Achilles is season-ending and requires at least nine months of rehab, especially in a 40-year-old athlete, is considered mainstream, therefore he would not conform.

“He challenges everything,” offensive tackle Duane Brown told me. “If people say something about a timeline, he’s going to challenge it. That’s just how it goes.”

The McAfee show provides a freewheeling look into the deeper recesses of Rodgers’ mind. He seems to take particular glee in dragging Travis Kelce, mostly for his commercials advocating flu and COVID vaccines and perhaps subconsciously for the massive attention Kelce has received for his relationship with Taylor Swift. In early October he challenged Kelce to a debate, suggesting he would bring anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. while Kelce could bring Dr. Anthony Fauci or “some other pharmacrat.” Unprompted, he took the opportunity during his Week 14 appearance to declare himself “on the right side of history” for refusing the COVID vaccine. “In an era of censorship and quelling free speech, I’m glad I took the stand I did. I’m welcoming more and more people to the side of freedom and free speech.”

He makes sure to preface his statements by saying he respects everyone’s opinions, even when he’s summarily discounting them. Most of the time he comes across as bright and funny and completely comfortable with himself — “a beautiful mind,” Boyle told me — but he also can seem like the kind of guy who trolls the internet’s most fetid swamps, his antenna out to detect any vibrations in the air.

During training camp and through the preseason, center Connor McGovern — among the many Jets’ offensive linemen who suffered serious injuries this season — developed a back-and-forth with Rodgers that began with McGovern asking him, “Hey, are you a big …”

Each time, the bit played out with Rodgers interrupting before McGovern could finish his question.

“Yes,” Rodgers would say emphatically. “Yes, I am.”

“It could be anything, any topic,” McGovern told me back in August. “Anything from football to a conspiracy theory, he knows where I’m going, and I always have an idea which way he leans.”

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Two days after the Jets were eliminated, Rodgers suggested it was “never realistic” for him to return for a game on Christmas Eve, the date he had long targeted to return, and that it made no sense to risk further injury in a lost season. His comeback from a torn Achilles, in other words, would proceed along the same timetable as everybody else’s. What, then, were the last three months about?

While the public and the Jets’ front office may have bobbed along with the ebbs and flows of Rodgers’ weekly teases — the hope for a Rodgers’ return may have kept the team from pursuing a non-Wilson/Boyle/Siemian/Brett Rypien option at quarterback — the tone in the locker room was more subdued. None of the several Jets I spoke with expressed any realistic belief that Rodgers would return to save the season, even after he was cleared for non-contact practice and continued to target Christmas Eve for his return.

“I wouldn’t say it was a boost when he came back to practice,” said tackle Mekhi Becton, who credits Rodgers for reviving his love for football. “We were pretty much … I don’t know how to explain it. We were just supporting him.”

Rodgers was elevated to the active roster on Wednesday even though Jets coach Robert Saleh says there is no way Rodgers will play. He will take up a roster spot and give the Jets four quarterbacks; the decision serves no purpose, other than placating Rodgers and allowing him to call in his bet on the medical-industrial complex. He can declare victory without having to win anything, perhaps the best of both worlds.

BACK BEFORE ALL this, before the injury crumpled both him and the season, Rodgers stood before a group of reporters at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, answering a question about what advice he would give Panthers’ No. 1 pick Bryce Young after the two teams had finished a joint preseason practice.

Rodgers flashed that wry grin and followed it with that knowing look. “Be gentle with yourself,” he said. “It’s a long journey. It feels like every little snap in every practice is the end of the world if it doesn’t go right. That’s not true. Hold on to your confidence and enjoy the ride — enjoy the little things every day.”

His teammates came to know this ethos by its shortened form: Flow like water. It became Rodgers’ mantra. It’s meant to evoke the way water moves effortlessly, with endless capacity for adaptation, taking the form of its path. In other words, precisely the opposite of the 2023 Jets.

It’s true that Jets fans enter every season expecting nothing and usually getting it, but this season was different: they would expect something before getting nothing. On one wall of the team’s indoor practice facility, there’s a stark reminder of the longstanding inability to procure a franchise quarterback. There are massive panels depicting every member of the Jets’ Hall of Honor, and 63 years after beginning play as the New York Titans, there is one quarterback: Joe Namath, who left the team in 1976.

They employed late-stage Vinny Testaverde, who took the team to an AFC title game, and late-stage Brett Favre, who didn’t, but late-stage Rodgers would be different. He was far closer to his prime, and far more likely to spread his deep well of knowledge throughout the roster.

And so on Monday Night Football on Sept. 11, with screens in the four corners of MetLife Stadium beaming his every move right back at him, Rodgers took the field to warm up in a Jets’ uniform, lofting the ball on a lazy arc 20 yards in the air and watching each one drop into a receiver’s hands like a leaf falling from a tree. This was the start of something, like the moments before a championship fight, when anything seems possible.

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The night started early, with fans packing the parking lot and blasting music. So much smoke rose from so many grills, signaling hope. No. 8 Rodgers jerseys were everywhere, and when he ran out of the tunnel, the last Jet announced, the last to carry a massive American flag to midfield, the building shook.

The era lasted 3 minutes, 45 seconds. Four snaps. Zero completions. One long run by Breece Hall. Three pass plays — one technically wiped out by a penalty — each accompanied by a big Bills pass rush. On the fourth play, Brown, playing left tackle, tried to cut-block Leonard Floyd but ended up lunging at his midsection. Floyd popped off Brown quickly and easily, free to pursue Rodgers. (It would be the final cut block of the season for the Jets, who did away with the technique after Rodgers’ injury.) Floyd wrapped Rodgers around the waist, spun him to his left. Rodgers struggled to get free, perhaps too vigorously and for too long, before Floyd wheeled him to the ground, tearing his Achilles in the process.

As Rodgers was driven away in an injury cart, I thought back to something McGovern told me after the second preseason game. “The standard with Aaron is so high,” he said, “and the last thing you want to be is the reason he got hit. It’s a little stressful, to be honest.”

THEY WENT THROUGH the motions before the Week 14 game against the Texans. It was raining and dreary, the sky the color of death, a few kids tossing a football around to avoid the adults. Hot dogs and Trulys in the parking lot at 11 a.m., people huddled around portable grills in rain suits. The buildup inside MetLife Stadium was equally subdued, the hype videos on the screens ignored. There were fireworks and the obligatory homage to first responders. Fireman Ed did whatever it is he does. You could count the fans in the building 20 minutes before kickoff.

It was 0-0 at halftime, adding to the pondering-life’s-choices vibe. Suddenly, Trulys in the parking lot while the rain smacked the asphalt sounded like the pinnacle of human achievement.

But then something unexpected, maybe even magical, happened. Zach Wilson affirmed humanity’s reckless potential and shredded the Texans’ defense for 30 second-half points. It was like a flare in the night. Benched and then unbenched, two years and 13 games into his career, less than a week after a report in The Athletic indicated he was uninterested in returning to the starting job, he seemed to find something more important than open receivers. He was decisive and accurate. He threw for 301 yards. He flowed like water.

Then last week the Jets were shut out, 30-0, by the Dolphins to drop to 5-9. Wilson left the game in the first half with a concussion that his mother ended up explaining on social media a few days later. Trevor Siemian finished up. The playoffs, already a dot in the distance, disappeared.

As did any hope — false or not — of Rodgers’ return. He put up a good front, implying that the team’s circumstances, and not just his body’s regenerative process, dictated his decision.

He talked about the future, not just next year but years after that. He established new parameters for the doubters and prognosticators. One gauntlet removed, another in its place.

“He’ll be back,” Duane Brown said, “and I’m sure he’ll be out to prove a whole lot. There will be hell to pay, one way or another.”

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