FLORHAM PARK, NJ — On the final day of practice the New York Jets will have before taking a break for the summer, the starting offense will have a first down.
The drive is in the red-zone period and it’s third-and-short, inside the 10. Aaron Rodgers takes the snap and reads the right side of the field where there is nothing. However, this may all be part of the plan. As Rodgers snaps the ball and opens his hips to the left, the linebacker in the middle of the field has been looked off, giving Rodgers the window to whip a pass to the left sideline, where Garrett Wilson has trickled past the coverage of cornerback Michael Carter II is out quickly.
A few plays later, the offense will score a touchdown. Wilson will come up the sideline, dab teammates and shake hands. Then, when Rodgers is greeted by the receiver, the four-time league MVP will tap Wilson’s helmet and the two will huddle together for a debrief where Rodgers will audit the timing, the placement, the distance, the non-verbal cues — just the sheer amount of nuances needed to win his trust on the pitch.
“That’s it, bro,” Wilson told USA TODAY Sports recently after that practice. “To be on the same page with the guy throwing you the ball is — if you take your job seriously and you’re a receiver, tight end or running back — that’s really valuable. I didn’t really know how much that turned into great . Being around him, I can see that now.”
Rodgers is notoriously demanding. This is one of the reasons why, breaking with his recent history of skipping the voluntary portion of organized team activities in his final seasons in Green Bay, he opted to join New York’s entire program.
These pre- and post-snap debriefings are not unlike what Rodgers — and many other top-tier quarterbacks — would do in a regular practice. But this will be the first of his 19 seasons spent outside the Packers organization following a trade in late April. And while New York hired offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett to install a similar system to the one Rodgers orchestrated under Hackett in Green Bay from 2019-21, and while the Jets have added two of Rodgers’ favorite receivers in Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb, the signal-caller’s presence at OTAs was crucial to getting the rest of the team up to speed.
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Receivers coach Zach Azzanni, whom the team hired in February, estimated that less than 10% of the signaling Rodgers does on the field had been installed through the offseason. There have been growing pains, as expected.
Earlier in New York’s final practice of the offseason program, Rodgers was on the field during a review period, ready to take the snap, when he saw a look from the defense and wanted to make an adjustment. He flashed a signal, and the receivers paused and looked at Azzanni, asking what that meant. Azzanni shrugged because he had never seen it before.
“Obviously Aaron knows what he wants and knows how he wants it,” Azzanni said. “I think there are certain plays where Aaron is good with some grays, and there are certain plays where Aaron says, ‘I need you to be here, on this farm, at this landmark, and that is there I need you.’ “
It’s gotten to the point that when the offense installs a new play or concept before a practice, Azzanni will ask Lazard and Cobb in the receivers’ meeting room if there’s anything he missed by learning the details that Rodgers might prefer a different path.
“Aaron has developed these habits and these routines that are just ingrained in him,” Lazard told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s more that we have to adjust to him and be at his level. That’s really what I’ve tried to implement with some of these younger guys.
“It’s funny because my receivers coach back in Green Bay, Jason Vrable, always joked with me and Cobb about how we could be coaches, and we were always like, ‘Nah, that’s not for us.'” But the truth is , that we’ve both really been coaches since we got here.”
Lazard enters his sixth season with Rodgers; Cobb his 11thth. One key relationship that has blossomed over Rodgers’ time in New York’s offseason program, however, is with a player who is in his first season with Rodgers. He happens to be the one to feed him the ball.
Centers play a key role for quarterbacks and help diagnose defensive alignments. During a recent practice, Connor McGovern identified the middle linebacker in a process called “Mikeing,” but Rodgers changed that call because of a look the defense gave.
“What he does with cadences, what he does with running offenses with his checks and how he sees things is so different and so next level of any quarterback I’ve been around,” McGovern told USA TODAY Sports. “Getting used to working with him and getting on that side of taking it to the next level of cerebral football is super important. It just takes reps; that’s why it was so big that he was here.”
Rodgers, for his part, has seemed to enjoy the transition, saying the six weeks of the offseason program were “the most fun I’ve had in a while.”
On April 29, he, Lazard, McGovern, running back Breece Hall and backup quarterback Tim Boyle participated in Game 6 of the New York Rangers’ NHL playoff series against the New Jersey Devils. The next day, he was on the court for the New York Knicks’ second-round series opener in the NBA playoffs against the Miami Heat. He attended the Tony Awards on June 11 with tight end CJ Uzomah.
He has been part of several dinners with teammates and has floated the idea of bringing teammates together ahead of the start of training camp in July for days of private practice.
If and when that happens, his new teammates can expect at least one thing: They need to be prepared for anything.
“The fun part is not the walkthroughs, not just turning off your brain and being a robot,” Rodgers said. “Test them on cues, test them on cadence, test them on adjustments and little adjustments we might have talked about right in the locker room.
“It’s been good, the boys are taking it well.”