FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Garrett Wilson hadn’t planned to say so first.
But once veteran receiver Allen Lazard said it aloud, the reigning offensive rookie of the year decided he could, too.
“I’m not going to beat around the bush, man: We want to win a Super Bowl,” Wilson said Thursday after the New York Jets’ first training camp practice. “You don’t make moves in the offseason like we did unless you’re trying to get there.”
You don’t trade for four-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers if you’re not actively and urgently trying to win it all.
So why not say so?
“That’s what you want,” Rodgers said. “It’s spectacular.”
The Florham Park sun beamed Thursday afternoon, the 85-degree heat index and 7-strength UV rays a fitting 12 degrees higher and two notches stronger than the concurrent Green Bay conditions. Even the climate wanted to remind Rodgers and his teammates: The spotlight is brighter in the New York market. The heat is more piercing.
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Jets fans didn’t hesitate to chant “No Fly Zone!” when cornerback Michael Carter II busted a couple of Rodgers-led plays in 11-on-11 drills, fellow corner D.J. Reed breaking up another pass from Rodgers in red-zone work. They jeered as the offense dropped to the ground for push-ups, after a feisty defensive day.
But as Rodgers and his collection of receivers work to get on the same page against the NFL’s fourth-best defense in 2022, the quarterback aims not to criticize or complain. He aims to teach.
“Maybe earlier in my career, I was a little more easily angered,” Rodgers reflected on the patience that longtime teammates agree he’s augmented. “I feel like I’m a little less triggered as I’ve gotten older.”
That might be just what the Jets need.
‘With Aaron, it’s a little bit more complex’
Rodgers’ glory days don’t trace back to a distant past. Just two seasons ago he was the league’s MVP, throwing a touchdown on a league-high 7% of his pass attempts and an interception on a league-low 0.8%.
Three seasons ago, Rodgers also earned league MVP honors. Mere months removed from the Green Bay Packers drafting their choice for his successor, Rodgers’ 48-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio accompanied a league-best 70.7% completion percentage.
So while it’s easy to wonder if Rodgers’ dip in productivity and efficiency last season — he threw 26 touchdowns and 12 picks as the Packers missed the playoffs for the first time in four years — correlated with his age, it also might be a lazy explanation. Rodgers, his teammates and coaches all needed to be better. But were age and physical decline actually what brought him closer to average, yet still above? Could part of Rodgers’ rhythm be restored simply by shifting his communication tactics with his teammates?
The Jets suspect the latter.
“Not to say that he was hard to play with at first in Green Bay [but] he was a little bit more like, ‘You guys have got to pick it up,’” said receiver Allen Lazard, who totaled 1,301 yards and 14 touchdowns the last two seasons in Green Bay. “But he’s a little bit slower here. There’s a lot of new players. The cadence that he has, the way he calls plays, the timing of routes, his anticipation. He plays in a state of flow and just letting the game happen.”
Rodgers doesn’t want to operate a reduced offense or regress below his ability. But he wants to build the necessary trust and communication to execute his advanced understanding of the scheme, he and Packers-to-Jets teammates like Lazard and receiver Randall Cobb aiming to stop taking for granted what they know about this offense and start relearning it all together.
They consider that multiple recent Packers eras, as well as the Jets’ last era, ran a West Coast offense. They remind themselves that the concepts of NFL plays are rarely ever that new for professional football players, but their applications and wrinkles may deviate from teammates’ familiarity while the play calls and terminology almost certainly introduce new variety.
“The way that Aaron sees football is a level 400 course that some people are stepping into fresh out of college and this is 100 level for them,” Cobb told Yahoo Sports. “A lot of offenses want to take the thought out for the quarterback and just allow them to play free. ‘This is the play. You don’t get this, you have this as another option.’ With Aaron, it’s a little bit more complex.”
That’s why Lazard said the Jets are installing not their old Green Bay offense but “The Aaron Rodgers Offense.” Rodgers emphasized that Nathaniel Hackett, his offensive coordinator in New York with whom he also worked in Green Bay, and Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, deserve their share of credit in systemizing the concepts each of the three men brought to their 2020-21 collaboration, but Lazard was speaking less about the offense’s roots than its reality.
Football requires improvisation for plays to move from theory to execution. Rodgers’ improvisation breathes life into the plans coaches create. “Chess in motion,” Cobb called it.
“When he’s on the field, the whole playbook is open at any given time,” Lazard said. “He’s always got a counter to whatever you’re trying to do to prevent us from being successful.”
Rodgers’ Jets embrace the target and the dream
Thursday, as the “Hard Knocks” cameras dotted sidelines and interview tents, and rowdy fans duly noted botched plays, Rodgers wasn’t only fixating on the path to success.
He was also emphasizing the risks of it — or more precisely, the dangers of initial success, and the need to handle success and pace the hype if the Jets are going to come close to tasting their Lombardi goals.
They’ll face tall tasks on the field early, opening their season against teams that won 13 and 12 games in 2022, respectively, in the Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys. The Jets’ AFC East is expected to prove far tougher than Rodgers’ longtime NFC North, be it the constant playmaking threat that Bills quarterback Josh Allen poses or the nightmarish defensive sketches of Patriots coach Bill Belichick. The Miami Dolphins, like the Jets, continued to stockpile high-end talent by acquiring cornerback Jalen Ramsey this offseason after dealing for receiver Tyreek Hill last year.
Even if the Jets can survive their division, can they truly represent the AFC in a Super Bowl when the likes of Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs and Joe Burrow’s Cincinnati Bengals loom?
The conference is loaded. The lights blaze. And little is guaranteed even atop a solid foundation.
And yet — none of that changes The Plan or The Expectation in Florham Park, head coach Robert Saleh distinguishing between expectations and pressure.
“There’s always expectations,” said Saleh, wearing an “I love Hard Knocks” shirt reminiscent of the iconic New York logo. “One thing I learned about this city is that you could have an expansion team and the expectation is to go 17-0. But as far as pressure goes, the pressure is to do your best every day, find a way to get better every day, and you trust that the results will come.
“We embrace being a team that may have a target on its back.”
The Jets are also embracing their dreams of a Super Bowl, some contributing verbal manifestation to the concert of gradual action.
“That’s the mindset we’re embracing in our facility,” Wilson said. “We know where we want to get. Personally, I think it’s OK to talk about it.
“If you want to go get that s***, get it. Talk about it. It’s cool.”