Joe Namath’s rant isn’t the old quarterback noise the Jets have to worry the most about.
It’s the Aaron Rodgers rebuke that should be setting off alarm sirens.
At this point, Namath is so far removed from the locker room and the field that his radio diatribe against the organization this week blended into the frustration of any other grumpy Jets fan tired of watching and re-watching the same sorry acts play out. His words carried the weight of a Hall of Famer and organizational icon, and that’s why they rightly became such a big story, but really he was just another outsider verbally flailing at the current state of a team he cares about.
It's why Robert Saleh was able to easily deflect that swing of Namath’s wrecking ball with a casual: “We’ll agree to disagree.”
But then along came Rodgers and his reprimands of the Jets on his weekly “Pat McAfee Show” appearance on Tuesday. He scolded the offensive players for letting their frustrations bubble over and told them they need to “grow up” and not point fingers at each other.
“I’ve said it with Aaron, he’s as much of a coach as he is a player and he’s been around youth and he’s been around adversity and he’s seen it all,” Saleh said of those remarks. “For him to recognize that and talk through it, I think he’s not wrong in that.”
No, he’s not wrong. But the fact that he of all people had to say it is.
It’s not a healthy situation when the adult in the locker room is in a room 3,000 miles away recovering from surgery on his torn Achilles.
This, of course, is all part of the package that the Jets bought when they traded for Rodgers. They were prepared to tolerate the sideshow antics that have become just as big a part of his personality as his Hall of Fame-level quarterbacking has. It’s actually how they first learned about Rodgers’ intentions to play for them, remember? The Jets’ brass was huddled around a screen watching the McAfee show in March when Rodgers emerged from his darkness retreat and made his desires known to the world before he’d even leaked them to Joe Douglas or Woody Johnson.
Their relationship was birthed in that multimedia rigmarole.
But now they don’t have the on-field payoff to balance out the off-field circus acts.
Henceforth, there will be two concurrent Jets seasons to cover, analyze and debate. There will be the one that takes place every Sunday or Monday (or Thursday or Friday) with the 53 active members of the roster, and there will be the one that has Rodgers’ sometimes honest-to-a-fault take on all of those goings-ons every Tuesday with his pal McAfee.
“That’s not going to be an issue,” Saleh said confidently. “I don’t think it should be. He’s part of this team. He has thoughts and I think he does a really good job articulating those thoughts in a manner that is respectful.”
He did the same thing when he was with the Packers, of course, but in that case he was the epicentral quarterback of the team and his opinions were backed up by his presence in games, practices and meetings. Now, with the Jets, he is essentially a remote employee using pandemic-era techniques to remain in the loop as much as he can. He’s Zooming and FaceTiming with players, but he’s not physically among them. He’s watching games on television and trying to lip-read the actual quarterback and offensive coordinator to get a feel for what is going to happen.
That’s the red flag.
This can’t still be Rodgers’ team when Rodgers isn’t playing for it any longer.
Transgressions and mistakes and other things that need immediate addressing on the team can’t be left to linger with a “wait until your father gets home” pause for Rodgers to address them.
Even if he comes back to be around the fellas more often at some point — he hinted he might be at MetLife for Sunday night’s game against Kansas City — his spokesmanship cannot be the loudest and most forceful voice in the building.
That’s not fair to Saleh, not fair to Zach Wilson, not fair to C.J. Mosley or Garrett Wilson or any of the other leaders to whom the Jets have to turn to fill what was supposed to be Rodgers’ vacuum but is really just a leadership glass that is half filled.
Maybe more like half empty.
“I think it’s important to realize who is here and that being said it’s Zach [Wilson], Tim [Boyle] and Trevor [Siemian],” offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker told Newsday of the current quarterback depth. “Those are the guys in the building. Obviously Aaron is still recovering, as I would too, with that big house in L.A. But when he comes back his presence will be well-known and I think it’ll be good for the team.”
Is it in the meantime though?
“He came here for a reason, and we made him the captain of this team for a reason,” Vera-Tucker said. “To me it doesn’t really matter if he’s here or if he’s not. It really just comes down to him being a leader and he’s been doing that from across the country. For me it’s cool to see.”
Running back Dalvin Cook, who like Vera-Tucker knows the solitude of being on IR and away from the team, at least conceded the current hierarchy is unorthodox.
“He’s our guy, man,” Cook told Newsday. “Yeah. It’s crazy.”
But, he said, in this world a player can have a presence via different technological channels.
“It can be a good or bad thing, but I know he’ll use it in a good way to try to get us back right,” Cook said. “To have him as our voice, I don’t think he’s saying anything out of character, but setting expectations for us each and every week. Aaron is a very intelligent person, so I think he’ll put us in a good spot.”
We’re not there yet, but you also don’t have to squint too far into the future to see a scenario where at some point Rodgers’ interests start to diverge from those of this year’s team. When will he start thinking about the Jets’ draft position for 2024 and the possibility of them selecting players who can help him win when he returns? At some point, might he start entertaining thoughts about who he wants as the head coach if Saleh’s tenure becomes untenable? Might he begin to relish in the narrative, perceived or realistic, that he and he alone had the power to salvage this season for the organization as some kind of absentee messiah?
That last part is already happening, by the way.
“Not sure we'd be 3-0, I don't know that,” Rodgers said on Tuesday in the middle of his scolding and how some of the antics he condemned might not have occurred if he were still quarterbacking the team. “I'd like to think there's a possibility of that.”
A decade ago, when Peyton Manning missed the 2011 season and the Colts, who had posted double-digit wins with him for 11 of the previous 12 seasons, sunk to 2-14, there was fun chatter about naming Manning that season’s MVP because his absence proved that no one was more valuable to a team than he was.
Maybe Rodgers will have a similar argument to make in 2023 for his fifth award.
At least the Colts’ struggles yielded them Andrew Luck the following year. The Jets may wind up drafting a quarterback for their future in April, but it’s fairly clear Rodgers will still be in the picture in some capacity when the 2024 season begins.
Heck, he can’t even extricate himself from the picture for 2023.
Normally players who suffer season-ending injuries are out of sight and out of mind, facing the solitary drudgery of rehab away from the embrace of the team’s dynamics.
Rodgers isn’t a normal player, though. And this certainly isn’t a normal situation.
It is, however, the reality that these Jets are going to have to learn to live in for three hours a week during their next 14 games . . . and one hour a week on the next 15 or so Tuesdays when their superego sits down for his on-air analysis.