On the morning after the Jets' season-ending victory at New England on Sunday, Jets head coach Robert Saleh acknowledged that the injury to quarterback Aaron Rodgers four snaps into the Week 1 game against Buffalo led to "one of the more trying seasons, just in my career."
The Green & White matched the record (7-10) from the 2022 NFL season, dealing with adversity throughout, while also building a resilient group that never quit.
"I'm not looking for pity party," Saleh said. "I do feel, one thing I will say is that I do feel stronger about the locker room than I ever did. We battled to 4-3, hit a lull [six-straight losses], we beat three playoff teams [Buffalo, Philadelphia and Houston], exorcized a lot of demons [ending the 15-game losing streak against the Patriots]. There's still a lot of demons we have to exorcize with playoffs, winning the division, all that good stuff.
"The locker room stayed together when it would have been easy for the offense and the defense to get segregated. They stuck together. The offense got better, especially in the run game. Breece [Hall], Xavier [Gipson] and [Jason] Brownlee took steps [the latter two were undrafted free agents]. What I think I learned is that we have an unbelievable locker room and an unbelievable group of characters. If we can do things just a little bit different, a light will be shined on how awesome this locker room is."
The Achilles tendon tear sustained by Rodgers in the season opener tempered expectations and threw the best laid plans of Saleh and his staff into unexpected territory. Rodgers, who turned 40 in early December, worked feverishly in an attempt to return to the field this season, but ultimately the Jets' elimination from postseason contention in mid-December changed that calculation.
Asked about his expectations for Rodgers next season, Saleh said: "My expectations for him are no different. I just watched him carve us up over the last month playing scout team [after Rodgers came off IR and was added to the 53-man roster]. He still has the juice, energy and arm talent so he's ... I think he's going to come out with more fire. My expectation for him is just to be him. He's 40 years old, he knows his process, he knows what's best for him in terms of preparation, mentally and physically. I think he's going to attack with the same mindset. He's on a mission and he's not going to stop until his mission's complete."
To ensure that Rodgers remains upright, Saleh acknowledged that bolstering the offensive line will be a top priority for the coach and GM Joe Douglas in the offseason. On Sunday against the Patriots, the Jets started their 13th different O-line combination over the 17-game season.
"There's definitely a league-wide pandemic with regards to O-line injuries," Saleh said. "I've been working this last month and a half trying to find the direction we need to go, and will continue to work on it the next few months. That is at the forefront of my mind, to keep those guys healthy. If the O-line is healthy, the quarterback is healthy. If the quarterback is healthy, we'll all be healthy.
"There's a recipe out there. For the most part once Joe [rookie Joe Tippmann] became the center ,we had some continuity along the O-line. Like I've said, it's not to be confused with good enough. Yet, I do think the run game really improved over the last five weeks of the season, but that comes just with continuity. I always appreciate the five that we have, it's just about getting them out there so they can play together long enough. So yeah, we're going to look at everything, we're going to turn over every stone we can. We're going to try and go through every back door and see if we can find an answer to keep these guys on the field and keep them healthy."
As was the case in the 2022 season, an injury to the versatile offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker had a huge impact for the balance of the season. Coincidentally, AVT sustained both injuries in games at Denver (triceps in Week 7 in 2022; ACL this season in Week 5).
"We want to get him at one spot," Saleh said said of AVT. "There's a lot of reasons to believe some injuries are because of his curse, which is his ability to move from one spot to another, his versatility. I'm not sure if it's contributing to why he got hurt the last two years. The first year he played one position [right tackle] and he stayed healthy the whole year. Whatever we decide -- whether it's left guard, right guard, right tackle or left tackle -- we want him to stay in that spot and never move through hell or high water, regardless of injury [at other O-line positions] to give him a chance to play and stay healthy through 2024."
Other topics Saleh addressed on Monday:
• After using four different starting QBs, he spoke about the search for a backup QB, without mentioning specific players: "Those are discussion [GM] Joe [Douglas] and I will have over next three-four months, or whatever until free agency [in mid-March]. We'll start this week with evaluating the roster and going over where we need to address the things that we need to address. The things that we have, the things that we need. It's definitely one of the things we'll talk about."
• On developing players: "I feel like we've had a couple of really good drafts since I've gotten here. We have guys in the hopper, guys ready to replace guys who are about to go get paid. You're always battling, but obviously you want to take advantage of guys on rookie deals. But you understand that if they play well and you develop them well, that's one of the things we talked about when we got here. When we first got hired, it was our job to make Joe D's job very, very hard in terms of developing guys the right way where we have to find ways to get under the cap and pay them. So we'll continue to do that, we'll continue to develop people and do our best to keep people in the hopper, ready to roll."
• On finding a complement to WR Garrett Wilson: "I don't think Allen's [Lazard's] story hasn't been written. I think he'll have a helluva year next year." He added: "I thought it could come from everywhere, Breece [Hall] stepped up (76 receptions for 591 yards, 4 TDs ... No. 1 among RBs), I thought [TE Tyler] Conklin (61 catches for 621 yards, second to Wilson on the team) was an awesome target, Ruck [TE Jeremy Ruckert] took another step, [Jason] Brownlee and X [Xavier Gipson] did a nice job. I'm still expecting Allen to come back and be more of a factor in his second year as a Jet. Obviously, we're always going to try and add the best pieces possible, to find another threat so teams can't tee off and double team Garrett."