EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The light bulb above his locker was still on. But the locker had emptied.
Three black plastic hangers were all that remained in the sixth cubby on the left from the entrance of the New York Jets’ stadium locker room.
No jersey, cleats, athletic tape or postgame change of clothes filled Aaron Rodgers’ locker after the Jets’ Monday night season opener. No game-worn sweaty socks enlarged the collection sprawled across the locker room carpet. No speakers hummed from Rodgers’ pod as the locker room celebrated an emotionally confusing 22-16 overtime win over the Buffalo Bills.
Zach Wilson and Breece Hall’s lockers flanked Rodgers’ vacant space.
The Jets’ season appears to loom similarly: the specter of Rodgers hanging over it, the four-time MVP’s offseason guidance deeply influencing his teammates’ understanding of the game while his on-field presence trends increasingly unlikely.
Will the 39-year-old Rodgers return this season, or ever, in a Jets uniform?
The question isn’t far-fetched after head coach Robert Saleh began his news conference after the game.
“Concerned with his Achilles,” Saleh said somberly. “MRI is probably going to confirm what we think is already going to happen. So prayers tonight.”
Saleh knocked on the wood of his podium.
“But it’s not good.”
It was not good when Rodgers was hit on his first pass attempt of the evening, as he spun out of the pocket and heaved a strong cross-body throw out of bounds to minimize damage. It was not good when Rodgers’ second pass attempt drew a first down by penalty but also a slam to the ground from Bills defensive end Greg Rousseau.
And on Rodgers’ third near-attempt and fourth-ever snap as a New York Jet (Breece Hall rushed for 26 yards on his first), Bills defensive end Leonard Floyd spun from the right edge to sack Rodgers on a tempo play. His left leg caught between Floyd and the turf. Rodgers limped to his feet and stood briefly, his hands on his hips as he glanced to the sideline and shook his head almost imperceptibly.
Then, Rodgers sat down and rocked backwards, his hands on his knees and his eyes glancing up in despair.
Rodgers’ Jets debut was unbelievable
Rodgers would see the blue sideline medical tent, a tunnel X-ray room, a walking boot and a halftime locker room of teammates before he left the stadium. But the quarterback would not see the field again Monday night. It’s unclear when he will.
“It’s almost like comical just on how this whole offseason played and for him to go down the first game without even completing a pass and everything,” said receiver Allen Lazard, who played five years in Green Bay with Rodgers before they both joined the Jets this offseason. “This is the game of football. Game of life. At the end of the day, you gotta keep persevering, keep pushing through, even through the tough times.”
When asked about his in-game emotions, Lazard said there was a “plethora.” There was fear and grief of losing Rodgers but also the numbness as players remembered injuries are part of football; Lazard and his teammates were still on the clock with a chance to upset the Bills. There was exhilaration each time Jets safety Jordan Whitehead intercepted Josh Allen — that’s three, for those counting at home — New York’s vaunted defense continuing to give its offense chances to pace Buffalo. And then there was the jubilation in overtime, when on an already bizarre night the Jets scored the rare walkoff punt-return touchdown. Credit undrafted rookie receiver Xavier Gipson with the 65-yard score that sent Saleh rushing to the end zone to celebrate, coaches and players alike falling into a pile of 1-0 glee.
Less than half an hour later, Saleh was balancing the ominous Achilles news with the victory that 50-odd players under his watch had just delivered.
“I’m going to enjoy this win,” Saleh said. “Personally, I don’t hurt for me. I don’t hurt for our locker room. I hurt for Aaron and how much he has invested in all of this. I’m still going to say a prayer. I’m still going to hold out hope.
“But my heart is with Aaron right now and no one else.”
The Jets jogged back to their locker room at halftime, down 13-3 and awaiting Rodgers. Saleh knew by then that the team feared Rodgers had torn his Achilles. Jets players insist they were focused less on the player prognosis and more on the person.
“You just show him love,” wide receiver Randall Cobb, Rodgers’ best friend and longtime teammate, told Yahoo Sports. “At the end of the day, that’s all I can do is show love. And that’s all I tried to do.”
Left tackle Duane Brown said he told Rodgers he loves him. Zach Wilson said he told Rodgers he loves him. Players prayed for Rodgers’ health. Receiver Garrett Wilson was determined to “honor” Rodgers’ impact with a win.
Thanks in large part to Wilson’s acrobatic game-tying touchdown with 4:55 to play in the fourth, the Jets did.
“He’s special,” Garrett Wilson said of Rodgers. “The impact he’s had on this team in such a short time is special.”
Mentoring Zach Wilson, the second overall pick of the 2021 draft, is a meaningful part of that impact.
What’s next as Jets, Zach Wilson move forward likely without Rodgers
Was Wilson meaningfully more effective Monday than last year, with one interception and one touchdown that Garrett Wilson arguably wrestled from a defender? No. But was the quarterback a little cleaner and more efficient on a 14-of-21 night? In a small sample size, he was.
Wilson’s 66.6% completion rate tied for his second best in 23 professional contests. Jets teammates gave Rodgers partial credit.
“Seeing his progression this offseason with Aaron, everybody knows Zach’s potential,” said running back Breece Hall, whose 147 yards from scrimmage marked a game-high. “So I have all the confidence in the world in Zach.”
A drunk-on-victory locker room echoed the sentiment, Whitehead unconvincingly asserting that “Zach is a starter in any other team,” while Garrett Wilson tried to credit the body control on his touchdown reception to the combination of Wilson’s belief in him and sheer will. Further questioning prompted him to admit basketball, gymnastics and his mother also deserve credit.
“That dude’s pushed me all day to throw the fade, throw the fade, throw the fade,” Zach Wilson said. ”We had the run play called and [offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett] goes, ‘Hey, let’s err on the side of handing this one off.’ And I just looked out there and saw G and I’m like, ‘I’m throwing this one up. He’s going to go up there and make a play.’
“It wasn’t the best throw, the dude was boxing him out, but that dude has unbelievable ball skills and he always finds a way to come down with it, so he’s somebody I’ve just got to keep leaning on to.”
Rodgers and the Jets will need to lean on each other in the coming days, as the final diagnosis hits and a disappointing reality replaces the high of an early-season win.
If anything, the Jets’ grit and skill to outlast the Bills without their prized quarterback is a jarring reminder of why this team wanted to go all in for 2023: They’re just that talented. It’s hard to envision the realization of those Super Bowl goals with Wilson behind center, but a Jets team that’s spent the summer steeped in high hopes continues to try to.
Saleh confirmed Wilson will be their quarterback moving forward as long as Rodgers is unavailable. And Saleh ensured that the expectations to achieve don’t change.
“You’re always trying to win every game,” Saleh said. “You’re trying to get as far as you can. You’re trying to win world championships. Next man up and we’ll keep rolling.”
The Jets’ early gauntlet won’t wait for Rodgers. Even if a shorter-term recovery window arises, the Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs line the next three weeks of their schedule. In 33 days, the Philadelphia Eagles will follow.
“Either way we got to wake up tomorrow, watch this tape, clean up the mistakes,” Lazard said. “Just the way this game goes. It’s a violent game.”
But before Tuesday’s film session, several players said they planned to check in with Rodgers, their halftime prayers and expressions of love insufficient to reassure the teammate who had brightened their spring and summer.
Cobb was anxious to call his best friend as he donned a denim jacket and packed his bags to leave the stadium. The season will roll on, sure. But so will their friendship.
“I’m really just trying to get out of here so I can go call him and talk to him and check in on him, and be the best friend I can be for him and just be there for him,” Cobb said. “It’s a sad day. Sad moment.”