Aaron Rodgers embraces pressure of Jets' do-or-die season

ByRich Cimini ESPN logo
Tuesday, May 21, 2024

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Aaron Rodgers is back as the starting quarterback of the New York Jets -- healthy, confident and ready for a potential do-or-die season for himself and the entire organization.

"If I don't do what I know I'm capable of doing, we're all probably going to be out of here," Rodgers said Tuesday after his second OTA practice -- the first open to the media. "I like that kind of pressure, though."

The four-time MVP amplified the narrative surrounding the Jets, that the fates of coach Robert Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas likely hinge on the 2024 season. The Jets are 18-33 under the leadership of Saleh and Douglas and are hoping Rodgers and a win-now roster can end the NFL's longest active playoff drought -- 13 years.

Rodgers, 40, put himself on the hot seat as well.

"You might not say it, but as you get older in the league, if you don't perform, they're going to get rid of you or bring in the next guy to take over," he said. "I mean, it happened in Green Bay, and I'm a few years older than I was back then.

"I expect to play at a high level. I expect us to be productive and competitive and all that stuff to take care of itself."

For the first time in eight months, Rodgers presided over the Jets' starting offense, showing no apparent signs of rust and no lingering effects from a torn Achilles that ended his 2023 season on the fourth snap.

"He's doing everything," Saleh said of the practice regimen.

With Rodgers at quarterback, the ball didn't touch the ground until the latter stages of the 90-minute practice. He was perfect(2-for-2) in his first 11-on-11 period, was perfect (5-for-5) in his only 7-on-7 period, and completed his first three attempts in the next 11-on-11 before missing wide receiver Xavier Gipson on a deep sideline route. Moments earlier, he had made his best throw of the day, splitting a pair of defenders on a deep seam to Gipson.

"I don't want to go out as a bum," Rodgers said. "So that's why I put the work in and believe in my abilities. I mean, you guys saw today. There's no pads on, but I can obviously still throw it with the best of them and can still move around.

"I look forward to getting back to where I was last year. When I play well, I think all the individual possibilities for recognition would be great. But if I play the way I'm capable of playing, we'll be playing for a lot more than that."

Rodgers' return has energized the team after a bitterly disappointing 2023, which saw the Jets (7-10) cycle through three other quarterbacks after Rodgers' devastating injury in Week 1. Saleh made some changes to the offensive staff, but he retained coordinator Nathaniel Hackett amid speculation that he might hire a senior assistant above Hackett.

Hackett will remain the playcaller, according to Saleh, who has taken a greater role in the offense. Chances are, a healthy Rodgers will make everyone better.

"It's amazing," defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich marveled. "He's found some sort of fountain of youth because I don't ever see a different version of him. It's the same guy I saw the last four weeks of the season when he was dicing us up on the scout-team stuff."

Rodgers practiced on a limited basis late last season with the backups, trying to pull off an improbable comeback from surgery on his left Achilles. At the time, he clearly wasn't 100% -- his footwork and lateral movement still were compromised -- and he never got back on the field as the Jets fell out of the race.

He was noticeably sharper Tuesday, participating in all the pre-practice calisthenics with the full team and doing actual running -- stuff he wasn't able to do at the end of last season. Rodgers said he feels "really good" from a strength and movement standpoint, adding that all he needs is practice reps to regain his feel and confidence.

Rodgers made headlines in the offseason, most notably when he was mentioned as a potential running mate by independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Addressing it for the first time with the local media, Rodgers said the talk of him becoming a vice presidential candidate was "a real thing."

"Yeah, I love Bobby," Rodgers said. "We had a couple really nice conversations, but there were really two options: It was retire and be his VP or keep playing. I want to keep playing."

By making so much non-football news in the offseason, including controversial remarks on various podcasts, Rodgers received criticism for seemingly contradicting his own edict from the end of the season. At the time, he said the Jets need to "flush the bulls---" and concentrate on football to become a winning team.

Reminded of that comment, Rodgers said he appreciates everybody's opinion, adding, "That's the beauty of the First Amendment in this country and free speech, whether it's positive to me or whether it's negative.

"I respect those opinions, but those are offseason things and those are real opportunities, mostly podcasts, friends of mine, and the Bobby thing was a real thing. How it got out there, I don't know. It wasn't from me. Once the season starts, it's all about football."

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