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GREEN BAY TO GANG GREEN: SUPER BOWL OR A LEGACY FAIL FOR RODGERS
An aging, brooding superstar becomes the biggest story in the biggest market in America’s biggest league, but if he struggles with the Jets, his escape to New York only will stain his career twilight
After all the hissy fits, all the retirement threats, all the hippie-dippie visits to Peru, all the “Jeopardy” shows and, of course, all the weirdness of four days in spiritual darkness, Aaron Rodgers finally has what he wants in life. That is, until his next mood swing. His escape from Green Bay is official, and in about four months, after he deposits a $58.3 million bonus in Week 1, he’ll take his first official snap for the New York Jets.
Does he grasp the magnitude of new expectations, the massive weight he inherits, a burden that demands his best and won’t suffer his polarizing ways without consequences? Does he know how often he’ll hear “J-E-T-S! JETS! JETS! JETS!” from East Coast loons who’ll make Cheeseheads look sedate? Does he realize the most imposing, influential pillars of the national media are within minutes of his workplace?
And the hell he’ll pay if he doesn’t deliver?
By virtue of his divorce from the Packers, and the ghosting of bosses who had no choice but to accept extortion and finally trade him, Rodgers has put himself in an almost impossible position. Anything less than a Super Bowl, if not another MVP season, will be viewed as a late-career setback that further dilutes a football legacy on pause. It would be an all-time triumph if he won a championship, 13 years since he lifted his only Vince Lombardi Trophy, for a slapstick franchise that hasn’t won it all since Joe Namath called his shot in 1969 and hasn’t made the playoffs in a dozen seasons. Imagine if he crashes the party of the quarterbacking cool kids — Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen and Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert, all in his way in the AFC — and returns to the big game that has eluded and vexed him.
But as he nears his 40th birthday, it’s unrealistic to think Rodgers is Tom Brady and prepared to defy time, health and common sense. These are still the Jets, of course, and he is still a human being whose most recent performances have exposed deficiencies. He never has reacted well to criticism, especially when he lied about being vaccinated for Covid-19 and turned a pandemic into weekly mockery sessions on his favored interview shows, hosted by Joe Rogan and Pat McAfee. How will he deal with inevitable backlash barrages if he doesn’t play well and the Jets struggle? Or if his political views are fodder in a town where Fox News no longer has Tucker Carlson and still craves ratings spikes?
In Wisconsin, he always could retreat to the woods. There is nowhere to hide in New York, where fans have unrealistic appetites and hyperventilating media will scrutinize his every step, throw and syllable. Already, he’s hearing how the Packers snaked the Jets in the historic deal — swapping first-round picks and moving up two spots to No. 13 in Thursday’s draft, while getting the 42nd pick this year and a second-rounder next year that becomes a first-rounder if Rodgers plays 65 percent of his team’s offensive snaps this season. Already, he must feel the heat of producing for a desperate organization that depleted its draft capital to secure him.
It’s not a matter of “if” he can make it there, in the Sinatra tradition. He’d better make it there, or New York will bury him and chase him to a permanent darkness retreat. Not five minutes after the trade was consummated Monday, Rodgers was a prominent gossip item in the Post, featured in pictures with rumored girlfriend Mallory Edens, who sits with him courtside at NBA games. The Page Six column published photos of Edens, some racy and bordering on soft porn, and the couple will be stalked by sniffers wondering why he’s dating someone so young, the 26-year-old daughter of the Milwaukee Bucks owner. Oh, the clamor when they show up at Madison Square Garden, which is pulsating as the Knicks return to life and the Rangers contend for a Stanley Cup. Oh, the photo ops when they sit near Jay-Z and Pete Davidson.
Is he ready for the intrusions, the scrutiny, the hassles? Yes, he has been a face of the NFL throughout his career, commanding attention and substantial endorsements in the smallest market in pro sports. But the daily pressures of his new address will consume him if he doesn’t perform and he’s prompted to lash out, as we’ve seen too often. The entirety of his profile will expand in his second act, and with Brady retired for good, Rodgers is the biggest story in the biggest city in the biggest league in American sports. He’ll be featured in at least six prime-time games for a team that made one such appearance last season. Vegas has hiked the Jets’ odds of winning the Super Bowl to 14-1. He’s an 18-1 pick to win his fifth MVP award, which would tie Peyton Manning. It’s no coincidence that his name shares a paragraph with Brady and Manning.
They produced the addendum he wants. Brady left New England and won a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay. Manning left Indianapolis and won a Super Bowl in Denver. If Rodgers doesn’t do the same in New York, by way of the team’s New Jersey training facility, he’ll be treated no less harshly than the predecessor who took the same exit hatch from Green Bay to Gang Green. How freaking bizarre to see him leave the Packers in bitterness just as Brett Favre left a decade and a half before, allowing an impatient Rodgers to take over and somehow outperform him as a playmaker and gunslinger. The New York experience was a disaster for Favre, ending in too many interceptions and losses, along with a scandal — he allegedly sent suggestive text messages and voicemails to Jenn Sterger, the team’s in-game host. The way Rodgers moves from girlfriend to girlfriend, in the social media age, who knows what awaits him … true or otherwise?
He’s not in Green Bay anymore. He’s not in Chico, the northern California town where he grew up, where his relationships became strained with family members who thinks the superstar bigfoots them. He leaves behind a small-town football hub that always will cherish their years together, despite the ugly ending, despite his refusal to meet with Packers brass in recent months and his insistence on airing business on McAfee’s show. Even the in-house boss he viewed as a nemesis was left to coat his parting words with praise.
“I have so much respect for Aaron — not only the person, but the player that he is, and there’s so much gratitude in what he’s done for this organization,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said Monday. “I know this. He’ll always be a Packer, and he’ll be one of the best that has ever done it around here. I have a lot of respect how he went about it and he’ll be missed. There’s no doubt about it. Players like that don’t come around very often.”
Any bad feelings in Green Bay were eased when Gutekunst landed a bigger trade haul than expected, giving Jordan Love a better chance to succeed as the unenviable quarterback who follows Rodgers and Favre. He’ll need all the help possible, as coach Matt LaFleur suggested when he said: “I think we’re fooling ourselves if we think he’s going to go out there and perform at a level to the likes of an Aaron Rodgers. This guy is a once-in-a-lifetime, generational talent. It’s going to be a progression, and hopefully we can surround (Love) with enough people to help him perform at the best of his ability, and then we’ve got to do a great job as a coaching staff.” The Jets had no choice but to be willing participants and swallow hard. They’d already demoted Zach Wilson, an early bust after he was drafted second overall in 2021. They waved as Derek Carr signed in New Orleans and Jimmy Garoppolo was traded to Las Vegas. They hired Rodgers’ beloved assistant coach, Nathaniel Hackett, and signed one of his favorite receivers, Allen Lazard.
Of Hackett, Rodgers said, “There’s a lot of reasons the Jets are attractive. But there’s one coach that has meant as much to me as any coach I’ve ever had. And he happens to be the coordinator there.” He also inherits weapons in wide receiver Garrett Wilson, the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, and running back Breece Hall.
The question is whether Rodgers can separate himself from the heartland and transition smoothly to, well, a potential hellhole. He knows what he left behind, and the move won’t be as simple as ditching his No. 12 — rejecting Namath’s offer to wear the same digits — for No. 8, his collegiate number in Berkeley. “I would say this is debatable, but I’m debatably the best player in franchise history,” Rodgers said last month on McAfee’s show. “I’m in the conversation, for sure. What’s not debatable is I’m the longest-tenured Packer in history. You can debate the first part — obviously Bart (Starr), Brett, a number of names have been incredible — but you can’t debate that anybody’s been there longer than I have and nobody has bled green and gold like me.”
He still can bleed green, at least, as he makes a ton of green: a guaranteed $59.4 million this season and $49.2 million if he plays in 2024. But at this point, while acknowledging no interest in lasting until his mid-40s like Brady, there is only one reason to keep playing football.
“Really, the Super Bowl,” said Lazard, speaking for his friend.
If this is what ayahuasca binges and isolated darkness do to a man’s thought processes, maybe Aaron Rodgers should start drinking iced tea like the rest of us. He wanted New York. He wanted the J-E-T-S. He should have consulted with his legacy first.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.