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RODGERS WILL RETURN, OF COURSE, BUT FOOTBALL HAUNTS GRAND DREAMS
He’ll have time for those darkness retreats, along with a lengthy rehabilitation, but it wouldn’t be his way to retire now even if a Super Bowl fantasy with the New York Jets is past tense
As we watched, in complete gobsmack, Aaron Rodgers wouldn’t let a training cart whisk him through the tunnel. He took the last few steps on his own, which should have been the first sign a season-ending Achilles injury won’t be a career-killer. He’s not finishing as such when he vaccine-attacked Covid, courted every female known to humankind and praised psychedelics employed by indigenous cultures and cave healers.
He’ll be back, in some form, and play his best and damndest. He’ll be 40 next year, 41 in December, and he still must deal with Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Trevor Lawrence and what remains of Josh Allen and his ghastly missteps. The Jets, as we realized before Monday night and now know forevermore, are not going anywhere near a Super Bowl except the 1969 visions of Joe Namath, soon to join double nickels.
“I’m completely heartbroken and moving through all of the emotions, but deeply touched and humbled by the support and love,” Rodgers finally wrote in a post on his Instagram page. "Please keep me in your thoughts and prayers as I begin the healing process today.”
And then in an ode to The Dark Knight, still not getting New York out of his system, “The night is darkest before the dawn. And I shall rise yet again.”
Should I assume he’s returning to a darkness retreat? He’ll have much time for many junctures until next summer, at the earliest, before he ponders reappearing with the Jets from his insane setback. Some men of Rodgers’ age would quit and move to a broadcast booth. Certainly, with one championship ring and four MVP awards, there isn’t much more to gain when his former team, the Green Bay Packers, appear headed the right way with successor Jordan Love. He came to a forlorn club in New Jersey with a wish to change their lore. It won’t happen, with the ugliest of fortune, four plays into a season opener watched by 23 million.
But losing this way is not the Rodgers way. He’ll come back with another TV extravaganza, more toned down, in Week 1 of 2024, knowing he has $38 million in guarantees next season. In the most recent superstar range, Kevin Durant blew out his Achilles tendon in June 2019 and returned two Decembers later after sitting out one season, thrusting him again into elite territory. A quarterback is known for his intellect and thoughts, which won’t change because of a repair on the other end of his body, yet the mobility surely won’t be the same. He’ll show 40 and 41 and 50. That probably will be it, though what do I know? There will be work and exasperation and so much time for ayahuasca. He will be back playing football because he is Aaron Rodgers.
“I’d be shocked if this is the way he’s going to go out,’’ Jets coach Robert Saleh said early in the week.
“This story is not over. Come back strong @AaronRodgers12,” Jets owner Woody Johnson wrote.
Said his ex-coach, Matt LaFleur, “I would bet that he would have no problem coming back from it, I really believe it. I know the type of worker he is, and so it's going to be a choice of whether or not he wants to continue to play or not.”
Not that serious issues aren’t happening already after Rodgers’ tear. NFL players are rising in fear about anti-turf sentiments, which were expressed long before his injury. Will this lead to an absolute rise in natural grass fields? The commissioner was quick to say he’d found no change, in research since 2015, regarding Achilles injuries on natural grass versus synthetic surfaces. Yet the league allowed the field of the Carolina Panthers, Bank of America Stadium, to install a grass surface for a match before switching back to artificial for football.
“You have other players who like playing on the turf field because it’s faster,” Roger Goodell said on ESPN. “So you’ve got mixed opinions. What we want to go on is science. We want to go on what’s the best from an injury standpoint.”
What’s by far the best, says NFL Players Association executive director Lloyd Howell, is that franchises spend considerable riches on natural grass. “The players overwhelmingly prefer (grass), and the data is clear that grass is simply safer than artificial turf,” Howell said. “It is an issue that has been near the top of the players’ list during my team visits and one I have raised with the NFL.”
Will the league change its mind? Not until the next collective bargaining agreement is up in March 2030, when Rodgers is on NBC.
Also at risk is the failing of cut blocking by offensive linemen, which led to the Buffalo Bills’ crazed rush of Rodgers in the first series. The Athletic went full bore as did others Thursday, which will lead to more speculation: Why go against Rodgers when he doesn’t like the play and never has? Defensive end Gregory Rousseau’s legs were targeted by right tackle Mekhi Becton, which didn’t work and forced Rodgers to throw away his only pass as he was hit. It took two plays for Duane Brown to miss the legs of defensive end Leonard Floyd, who came in for the sack that ended the quarterback’s swan song. With the Packers, Rodgers didn’t appreciate cut blocks. Did anything change with his new/old offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett, calling the same plays he once did in Green Bay?
Saleh refused to blame Brown. “You fight until the end of the down, but when it extends the way that it did, it’s just a very, very unfortunate play,” he said.
Said Brown, 38: “It was a cut block. Went to cut the defensive end, he played it well, and he got home, and Aaron got injured. I gotta execute the cut better. I got all the respect and love for Aaron. I just hate to not see him out there.’’
In Green Bay, offensive tackle David Bakhtiari had more answers. “I blocked for Aaron for a decade. I’ve gotten a lot of s— from him about cutting and pretty much the rule of thumb, at least working with him, is you don’t cut unless Aaron says so in the huddle or at the line of scrimmage,” he told The Athletic. “And that’s no dig at Aaron. … When people were defending and saying that’s what they’re supposed to do, I was like: Well, clearly there’s miscommunication. Because if your coach is telling you to do that, then he doesn’t know Aaron. And I know for a fact, Aaron definitely has probably brought it up. So I’m like: You’re not all on the same page. Again, that’s not the reason why it happened. There’s so many other factors.”
Meanwhile in the same locker room, Love was left to feel sorry for the man who prepared him. “It sucks for that to happen to him in the first series,” he said. “I feel for him, I know he's going to bounce back, and he'll do his thing in recovery, and he'll come back stronger.”
He will. And what no one in Green Bay will say is that he turns 40 soon and that maybe, maybe, the Packers were dead right. Nor will another former coach, Mike McCarthy, who’d been looking forward to facing him Sunday in Dallas. Instead, he gets Zach Wilson, a victory. “I have a tremendous amount of love for him,” said the Cowboys coach. "This is tough. I know he was very excited about this chapter of his life, and I was looking forward to seeing him. ... You get to see how precious these opportunities are. Every game is such a special opportunity to compete in this league. So, yeah, I think we're all feeling for him personally right now.”
Nothing is wrong with one championship or four league MVPs. Rodgers still will be remembered among the six or seven all-time quarterbacks. He wanted to be top three, but the body is bigger than the fantasy. For now, we await his first day back in several weeks, when he’ll be in civvies on a sideline somewhere. “I feel more for Aaron than anyone,” Saleh said. “He’s invested so much into this organization, so much into this journey that he’s embarked on and wanting to be a part of what we’ve got going here. And how much he’s invested in not only this organization, but his teammates, himself, this fan base, the city — so I have a lot of emotions for him.”
Emotions and Aaron Rodgers. We have them.
At what point did that never seem possible?
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.