Aaron Rodgers stood before the Jets reporters one last time, on "the toughest day of the year," the first day of an NFL team's offseason, and reviewed what he called, to no one's surprise, the "sadness" and "frustration" of his first season in a different shade of green than he'd been used to.
But just as head coach Robert Saleh and his players described Sunday's 17-3 snowfall victory over New England as the last game of 2023 and the first game of '24, so Rodgers accentuated the positive before heading back to his West Coast home to finish up his Achilles rehab and start up his offseason workouts toward the start of a new dawn.
"It was bittersweet," Rodgers said of his celebrated lightning-speed recovery from his opening-night injury to at least start working with his teammates again. "It was fun to be able to go out there and practice, to watch practice. There was excitement. And also the what-if kind of hits you in the face pretty hard. If you saw what we were able to do, there's a lot of the what-could-have-beens."
Perhaps the most important part of Rodgers' December wasn't that he geared up for a grand return that never happened but that Saleh brought him back into the practice swing of things and kept him there for the last several weeks instead of placing him on Injured Reserve.
"I've dealt with two major injuries, in '13 and '17. Those were frustrating years, but I had something to look forward to," he said of returning to uniform to lead the Packers' offense at the end of the schedule both seasons. "That felt like there were victories in that I was able to get back out there and play for my guys. This year, that's what I was trying to do, to get back by Christmas Eve at the latest, unfortunately we just weren't in it to allow that to happen.
"As much as I thought after that loss, we would just put me on IR and move on down the road, that was a decision above my pay grade. But I am thankful for that ultimately, just to be able to get back on the practice field salvaged some of the disappointment from the season.
Just as ARod helped the Jets' mental health shortly after his injury by returning to North Jersey to continue his rehab and appear inside the Jets training facility and at practices, so he provided some physical prep for the team late in the season as many Jets described his work with the scout team.
'Absolutely, He's a Leader'
Saleh talked about "watching him carve us up over the last month" in getting the first offense ready for games. Defensive captain C.J. Mosley had similar sharp thoughts on what No. 8 brought back to the Jets table.
"On the field, in the building, absolutely he's a leader. I have a lot of respect for him," Mosley said. "He doesn't talk a lot — that may sound surprising — but he listens, he observes. He's a competitor, he wants to win. I can only imagine how he felt when I saw how he came back to practice and was lighting us up on defense."
So the Jets' season is over after they played 94.1% of their schedule (16 of 17 games) and 99.6% of their offensive snaps (1,097 of 1,011) without No. 8. Rodgers said 31 teams have "a long, troubling offseason ahead." But the Jets' bandwagon will rev up again in April in part because Rodgers says he has the inspiration and he has the mission.
"I always have a lot of motivation," he said. "I think the greatest competitors can motivate themselves. You can find inspiration from other people, too, and that's important. But as you get older, training becomes a lifestyle thing. You can't take a month off and eat what the hell you want, then pick it up and get back into it like you could in your 20s. I'll go through my end-of-season detox and rehabbing and then get into my training."
He acknowledges the team needs "a couple of more pieces" but remains upbeat about the players that will return despite the "transient nature of the business."
"We're close. There are some tough decisions about certain individuals. I think we've got a core group of guys that are really solid," he said. "I think you saw a lot of great play from individuals. Some guys took some steps from year one to year two. There's a lot of good cornerstone talent. We have two Pro Bowlers and a lot of guys who could've been, but they're on the defensive side of the ball. We've got to make sure we've got some guys playing to a Pro Bowl level on the offensive side of the ball."
See photos of the teams that the Jets will play in the 2024 season.
'Thankful for the Lessons I Learned'
And that, or course, includes Rodgers, who's played in 10 Pro Bowls and 22 playoff games and still feels like he's got a few things to prove and a few things to show to those who come to watch him as a fortysomething gunslinger.
"It was a really difficult year. It kind of hit me last night after the game, just feeling like I lost a year, that I missed out obviously on a lot of opportunities, thinking that if I'd been out there, things would've been a little different," he said. "It's hard to go down that road a little butterfly-effect road. As humans, part of our nature is to play the what-if game, rue things that happened, how they happened, how they could have been avoided from happening. I'm thankful for a lot of things that did happen, relationships that were formed, people who showed up for me.
"Adversity can bring out the worst or the best in you. I'm thankful for the lessons I learned in the process of the sadness and the frustration."
But with the new year already begun for the Jets, Rodgers reiterated a theme he broached during the season.
"I was thinking when I got traded that it was going to be a one-year thing," he said of the Packers-Jets deal completed early in draft week. "Then I got here and realized how much fun I was having, and I said it's not going to be a one-year thing. And then it gets taken away.
"This is not a one-year thing in my mind. It's what have you done for me lately. I have to go out and prove I can still play at a high level. But I'd like this to be more than just next year."
But 2024 beckons first. Rodgers said he'd be open to help GM Joe Douglas and his staff "as much or as little as they want," but primarily he will wait to see who the personnel team brings to One Jets Drive in free agency and the draft. And then ...
"The fire's still really strong," he said. "I'll be looking forward to seeing what changes happen, then try to find a way to get everybody on the same page, get the positivity going, get the goal-setting going, get the manifestation going, and get this thing where it needs to be."