How do you put the pieces back together on a season that disintegrated in four plays?
The New York Jets are still coming to terms with Aaron Rodgers’s achilles tear and its short- and long-term impact. The solution for now: They’ll turn to Zach Wilson. “I want to make it very clear, Zach’s our quarterback,” Jets head coach Robert Saleh said after it was confirmed Rodgers will miss the rest of the season.
This is a team with a championship roster. They have the best defense in the NFL and enough stars on offense to put them over the top, even with a rickety offensive line. But moving forward with Wilson without canvassing the free-agent and trade market is effectively waving the white flag on the season.
Wilson hasn’t just been bad as a Jet; he’s been pretty much the quarterback in the league. Wilson ranks 78th among 80 eligible quarterbacks in the RBSDM composite since he was drafted, which measures the value of a play and how much the quarterback can be deemed responsible for the value. That figure puts him behind the likes of Trevor Siemian, Drew Lock, Sam Ehlinger, and Tim Boyle, Wilson’s own back-up.
Wilson got to spend a few months around Rodgers in training camp, but that isn’t going to fix his core issues. He’s unsure where to go with the ball, and when he is, he’s reckless – Wilson had only two games last season in which he finished with more touchdowns than interceptions. And it’s not as if he’s working with the ideal staff. Jets offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s main value to the Jets was his close relationship with Rodgers.
In Green Bay, Hackett built a system – in concert with head coach Matt LaFleur – that would work for a Hall of Famer, something which Wilson definitely is not. There was a moment during the Buffalo Bills game on Monday, when cameras captured Hackett staring at his play sheet for what felt like an hour. You could almost hear the cogs churning: “What do I run with this guy?”
We saw what happened when Hackett was on his own as head coach of the Denver Broncos, trying to remodel a quarterback. The Russell Wilson experience was a disaster. Before that, Hackett had failed to run a successful offense anywhere outside the Rodgers-LaFleur orbit.
The Jets’ upcoming games are wince-inducing. They’ll head to Dallas this week, lining up against the league’s most ferocious defensive front. Then it’s a home stand against the New England Patriots’ vaunted defense and the Kansas City Chiefs, the defending Super Bowl champs. A 1-3 start beckons, and this in the NFL’s Division of Death.
If Wilson and Hackett look destined to fail as a partnership, the Jets need to move now, even if they wind up paying a premium. There are few options on the free-agent market. Carson Wentz is as prone to self-combusting as Wilson. Matt Ryan looked fossilized in Indianapolis, though he is yet to file his retirement paperwork. Tom Brady isn’t happening, for the simple fact that he has ownership interest in the Las Vegas Raiders. Phillip Rivers’ name has been bandied around, but he’s 41, hasn’t played football in two seasons and looked more wooden than Ryan at the end of his career.
The best bet is to turn to the trade market. The Rams’ surprise win over the Seahawks in Week One has changed the calculus. Matthew Stafford would have been the ideal solution, helping the Rams reset their timeline and bringing an elite arm to the Jets offense. But it would be tricky to make the financials work, and the Rams may believe they can make a playoff push.
The other options:
Teams will be reluctant to part with quality backups so early in the season – and the price may be too steep for the Jets to pay, given they’ll be handing over a second-round pick to the Packers for the Rodgers deal.
Still: all of the players above would represent an upgrade on Wilson, even if the long-term implications are murky. The Jets are too talented to tank a season away to move up in the draft standings. And even if they did position themselves to pick from the current crop of college stars, how would Rodgers feel about the Jets drafting a young understudy? The Packers selecting Jordan Love led to his inevitable divorce from Green Bay in the first place. And if the Jets were to take a swing in the trade market to bring in a good veteran, how would Rodgers respond?
Rodgers will be 40 at the start of next season, coming off an injury that can be a career-ender. The Jets will have to do something now – or in the coming offseason – in case an ageing Rodgers injures himself again.
That’s before you get to the impact on his game. Rodgers has always been someone who creates off-script magic. If his injury limits some of his playmaking ability, his value will fall with it.
Threading the needle between finding a candidate for today who would be happy to sit behind Rodgers next season or walk off into free agency is tough. Stafford remains the ideal, if he is willing to forgo some money for another shot at a title. The Rams quarterback bickered with the team all offseason about his contract but looked like his old self in Week One after a year struggling with an elbow injury. Would the Jets be willing to part ways with a first-rounder for a shot at winning it all with a quarterback who would walk away next offseason? Would the Rams be happy to ditch the early optimism of this offseason and accept they don’t have the juice to win it all this year? After all, they reportedly had no interest in trading Stafford to the Jets before the Rodgers trade was made.
The options are limited. But this opportunity is too good for the Jets to get bogged down in concerns about Rodgers’ feelings or the team’s long-term accounts. The Jets have an elite defense right now, something which is less sustainable than a good offense.
Offensive production is driven by star power. Having a long-term franchise quarterback is what keeps an offense humming along year-to-year. Defense is driven by the ability of the 11th-best man on the field. Good offenses will always find the weak link on defense. Sustaining a quality group year-to-year requires 16 talented players who can sub in and out, a coherent scheme, and a couple of stars. Putting together a group without a weak link is incredibly difficult. Those that do – like this Jets team – typically have a four-year window, at most. Even Seattle’s great Legion of Boom defense started to slip when the fifth year rolled around. Building a consistent winner on the back of a defense is hard: Players get hurt, free-agency saps talent, age and attrition begin to take over.
Championship windows in the NFL are always shorter than anyone anticipates. Teams splinter. They become mired in cap hell. They lose key contributors, are depleted by injuries, or fall prey to the Disease of Me. Cam Newton’s Panthers disintegrated in record time. Wilson and the Seahawks could not get back to a championship game after losing on the one-yard line in Glendale in 2015. It’s nearly 15 years since Rodgers’s first – and only – Super Bowl appearance, and it looks as if he will retire with just one championship to his name.
Even with a group of superstars and should-be stars on their roster, the Jets defense will be heading into year three of the Championship Caliber Defense window next season. One critical injury or some brain drain from the defensive staff, and the group could take a step back. The defense was already unusually healthy when it had its breakout season last year – and has already lost starting safety Chuck Clark for the campaign, and it didn’t have top edge rusher Carl Lawson for the Bills game. And it’s not as though the path in the AFC is going to get any easier. The league’s top, young quarterbacks are concentrated in the same conference.
The Jets owe it to their players, staff, fanbase, and themselves to try to cash in today, as difficult as it seems. Whether it’s the Winston rollercoaster, Dalton, or pulling off a blockbuster move for Stafford, the Jets need to do something.
For now, it’s the Zach Wilson Show. Prepare to file for your refund.