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It’s all just another beautiful Aaron Rodgers mystery, these stars that are aligning between the Green Bay Packers quarterback and the extremely quarterback-needy New York Jets.
To hear Jets head coach Robert Saleh tell it, there’s nothing to it. Hiring Nathaniel Hackett, the ousted Denver Broncos head coach who previously served three years as Rodgers’ offensive coordinator in Green Bay? Just a coincidence. Never mind that fixing the quarterback position is the Jets’ top priority. Or that ownership and the front office believe that a Super Bowl window opens next season if the right quarterback is plugged into the middle of the offense.
The team’s company line right now is simple: Hackett was hired on the merit of his résumé, and Rodgers was never discussed as a potential veteran resolution to New York’s problem.
It’s extremely hard to believe that given the nexus of neediness unfolding before us.
Make no mistake, these are three parties that appear to need each other right now. From the Jets requiring a big swing at a veteran quarterback this offseason, to Hackett needing a reboot with a familiar player, to Rodgers staring into the teeth of a Packers youth movement, an alliance in New York makes plenty of sense — especially on a team that is loaded with talent and positioned to take a significant step next season.
There is a win-now fit here. It might even buy the necessary time to help Zach Wilson become the viable player the Jets thought they were getting with the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2021. Would there be moving parts? Sure, but there’s never going to be a high-ceiling option on the table for New York that isn’t going to require some serious work.
Let’s start with Hackett.
Sure, Nathaniel Hackett failed as a head coach but …
He failed miserably in Denver. There’s no getting around what everyone witnessed. For whatever reason, Hackett didn’t mesh with quarterback Russell Wilson, didn’t run an offense conducive to trusting unfamiliar playmakers and looked overwhelmed when it came to the broad strokes of running an entire team on Sundays. In fairness to Hackett — and we shouldn’t savage his Denver collapse without being honest about all of it — his offense had a ridiculous spate of injuries that didn’t help and it appeared he spent a large portion of the season learning how to coach Wilson.
Like so many offensive coordinators who have failed badly as head coaches, there’s an argument to be made that the Denver debacle doesn’t account for the totality of what Hackett is. It’s possible that he’s better served to be an offensive coordinator than a head coach.
There is a hard reference in his favor that can’t be overlooked: Rodgers, who worked extremely well with Hackett during back-to-back MVP seasons in Green Bay, is on record saying he thought Hackett was simply a bad fit in Denver.
As much as Saleh will sell his experience with Hackett when the two were together with the Jacksonville Jaguars, a much more optimistic account of Hackett is coming from Rodgers. Why? Rodgers could be available to the Jets via trade, and there’s evidence of a successful working relationship and a willingness to run it back together.
As much as the Jets might be pulling their hair out about the Hackett hire, the reality is he’s part of the coaching staff now. Would fans rather he work with a guy who was a back-to-back MVP under his watch in 2020 and 2021, or would they rather New York roll the dice on another quarterback and pray that it’s not another terrible fit like Wilson was? The answer should be simple. Hackett is on the staff now. It only makes sense to attempt to pair him with Rodgers.
A familiar solution that even accounts for Zach Wilson
I’ve been saying since December that people should be paying attention to the Jets when it comes to Rodgers. Even when things were going well down the stretch in Green Bay, you could see the writing on the wall. There were far too many aging players who were likely going to get pink slips from a Packers front office that is trying to revitalize the roster with younger and cheaper players. And there was likely going to be little appetite for Rodgers to stick around for another season as some of his friends were floated off the roster, especially if the Packers were going to pick up the fifth-year option on Jordan Love (which is expected to happen in May).
Rodgers is aware of all this. He’s constantly calculating his standing and the positioning of his trusted allies inside the Packers. He knows his days are numbered. And if he truthfully feels he still has the chance to play at an MVP level, then it’s fair to wager he’d like to accomplish that his way. And if he can’t do it with all his familiar friends in Green Bay, he might as well do it running the West Coast offense that he has been banging the drum for during the past few seasons. Guess who is most likely to scheme an offense in the manner Rodgers wants at this point? Nathaniel Hackett.
There’s a coach who needs the kind of redemption and familiarity that comes from working with a high-level veteran who has a track record with him. There’s a quarterback who wants to run an offense his way, keeping more of the power in his hands at the line of scrimmage. Paired together, they had monumental success in 2020 and 2021. Split apart in 2022 (and neither having the services of Davante Adams), they each fell off a cliff. Even from the most simplistic data, neither Hackett or Rodgers should require a hard sell when it comes to a reunion.
Here’s what is going on behind the scenes: First and foremost, I think team owner Woody Johnson wants a high-level answer at quarterback in 2023. People can argue about whether Rodgers represents that, but what they can’t argue is whether there will be a wealth of better options this offseason. Here’s the short answer: There won’t.
Unless Lamar Jackson absolutely burns down his relationship with the Baltimore Ravens in the next six weeks, there isn’t going to be another quarterback available with the skills and ability of Rodgers. That includes Tom Brady and Derek Carr and whoever else is getting projected as a trade or free agency target.
Even at 39, Rodgers looks like a player who could have a few high-level seasons left if he were put in the right situation. By “right situation,” we’re talking about a team that has an elite defense and the offensive pieces to balance out a complementary attack. With the healthy return of running back Breece Hall and linemen Alijah Vera-Tucker and Mekhi Becton — along with some other additions this offseason — that team is the Jets. Conversely, Rodgers is exactly the kind of chippy, tough, all-weather quarterback who can step into New York and not flinch in December and January.
Layered into all of this is the existence of Zach Wilson. He matters, because there’s a chance the Jets will try to split the baby with the veteran quarterback they bring in for 2023. Half of the effort will be adding a player who can take the team over and immediately seize on a juiced roster. The other half of the effort will be to allow Wilson to take a step back long-term, learning from what he sees and going through a functional reboot while someone else resides in the spotlight. Something like that requires a player who doesn’t miss games and takes up all of the spotlight at the quarterback position. That’s Rodgers.
It might be going a little far to expect that he would “teach” Wilson how to be a pro, but there’s an element of that which everyone seems to be missing right now. When the Packers picked Love in the first round of the 2020 draft, it was done to cement a replacement for Rodgers. He had no choice in that move, which naturally put him into a defensive posture. But if he were to green light a trade to the Jets, Rodgers would be choosing to go in and plant himself in front of Wilson. That puts the power squarely into Rodgers’ hands, creating an environment where he’s not on the defensive when it comes to the positioning of the backup QB. It’s not remotely the same situation as the Packers selecting Love to replace Rodgers. And that removes an immense amount of drama from the situation.
Of course, none of this works without hurdles. Rodgers has to decide he wants to continue playing and then cross the bridge of whether he wants that future to be outside of Green Bay. Then he’d have to choose the Jets over other potential suitors. And finally, the Packers would have to figure out what kind of draft compensation is worth taking the $40.3 million salary-cap hit, which could be suffered all at once in 2023 or spread over two seasons if a trade is completed after June 1.
The reported asking price would be two first-round picks. The real asking price might be a little less. Figuring out what that means is still a distant problem. But for the Jets, fixing this quarterback issue is going to be a trek no matter what route is chosen. Hiring Nathaniel Hackett seems to be the first mile marker. If the road ends at Rodgers, New York could have done far, far worse.