PHOENIX — If everything had gone according to plan for the New York Jets …
Zach Wilson, entering his third season, would be entrenched as the starter, poised to challenge the Buffalo Bills‘ Josh Allen for top quarterback in the AFC East. There would be talk of an extended championship window, with the final two years of Wilson’s rookie contract providing great financial flexibility in 2023 and 2024.
Thing is, it hasn’t gone according to plan. Wilson has disappointed and no longer is considered QB1-worthy by the organization, which has pivoted to working on a trade for Aaron Rodgers, pinning everything on a 39-year-old quarterback who was “90 percent” retired before his so-called darkness retreat in mid-February.
In another words, it’s all about the “now” for the Jets. The days of the methodical rebuild are over; they’re on the accelerated program. With Rodgers as their presumptive quarterback, and with coach Robert Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas entering potential make-or-break years, the Jets are all-in for 2023. The shift in roster-building is reflected by their moves and potential moves.
They would like to sign wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., whom Douglas described as a “unique talent.” Beckham, 30, who sat out last season with an ACL injury and hasn’t produced a 100-yard receiving game in the regular season since Oct. 13, 2019, spoke briefly with Jets officials Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings at the Phoenix Biltmore. Beckham, wearing green pants (surely, a signal!), was photographed in an embrace with Saleh, the team’s ace recruiter.
The Jets are preparing to visit with former Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell, 36, who arrives in New Jersey late Wednesday. [Editor’s note: Campbell signed with the Atlanta Falcons on Wednesday.] They’re also showing interest in center Ben Jones, 33, a career iron man until two concussions led him to miss seven games last season.
There’s nothing wrong with this approach. It’s just … well, different for the Jets, known for glacially slow rebuilding. Clearly, it hasn’t worked, as they have missed the playoffs for 12 straight years. Soon that will be the longest postseason drought in the four major sports leagues. The NBA’s Sacramento Kings — current owners of the dubious mark — are on the verge of clinching their first playoff berth since 2006.
“I’m not the patient sort, really,” Jets owner Woody Johnson said Tuesday. “We have to win. We’re in the win business, so we have to win now. That’s the same thing I said 23 years ago” — when he purchased the team.
That doesn’t qualify as a playoff mandate, but you can bet Johnson, 75, won’t be satisfied with another empty January, especially after the expected trade for Rodgers. The future Hall of Famer gives the Jets a one-year window, maybe two if he sticks around in 2024. Because of that, Douglas is giving the four-time MVP the best chance to succeed. He already has signed two receivers, Allen Lazard and Mecole Hardman. Beckham could be next.
It’s as if the Jets are telling Rodgers, “Don’t worry, Aaron, this isn’t Green Bay. We’ll get you everything you want.”
Johnson called the additions “terrific. Have you seen these guys perform? Amazing. Hardman, he’s been in the Super Bowl. Just looking at his tape, it’s really inspiring to me.”
Douglas, who was hired in 2019 and spent his first three offseasons collecting draft capital, is prepared to spend some of it in the trade for Rodgers, who figures to command multiple picks. Instead of having eight or 10 rookies on the roster, the Jets will have more veterans than usual. Saleh still likes the balance on the roster, calling it a good mixture.
Indeed, they have a handful of ascending stars, mostly notably cornerback Sauce Gardner, wide receiver Garrett Wilson, running back Breece Hall (if healthy) and defensive tackle Quinnen Williams. Their hope is that Rodgers can galvanize the talent, the way no quarterback has done for the Jets in a playoff year since Chad Pennington in 2002 and 2004.
“We’re always expecting to go as far as we possibly can, but once you set expectations, what can you do in the moment?” said Saleh, who is 11-23 in two seasons.
“We felt like we got close a year ago. Obviously, in the back half of the year, it didn’t go the way we wanted.”
The Jets ended on a six-game losing streak, washing away most, but not all of the optimism from their 7-4 start. Internally, they believe they would’ve made the playoffs with consistent quarterback play. Johnson called it “the missing piece,” saying after the season that he’d do whatever it takes to solve the problem.
Zach Wilson’s struggles have forced the Jets to re-chart their course and reallocate their money, with Rodgers due to earn a guaranteed $59 million in 2023 on his existing contract. Even if the Packers eat a chunk of salary, it’s a big salary that wasn’t anticipated a year ago. It shines a light on the importance of high draft picks. One giant mistake can hurt a franchise for years.
Now the Jets have a new plan. In separate interviews at the owners meetings, Johnson, Douglas and Saleh kept referring to The Plan — i.e. Rodgers.
The Plan. The Plan. The Plan.
It hasn’t crystalized yet, though. Asked when he hopes to have his quarterback situation solidified, Saleh said, “As a coach, I would’ve said three years ago.”
No such luck.