Four plays into his Jets career, Aaron Rodgers is done for the year in the latest example of misfortune and misery for Gang Green.
Fans of sports teams will often describe their teams in terms that are on one extreme or another, a black and white approach while the reality is more shades of gray. Every fan thinks that their player is the best player and when they lose the whole world is out to get them. This is, of course, the nature of fandom. Some teams experience such a lack of success that many fans will shout from the rooftops that their favorite team is cursed. There have been many “cursed” franchises over the years such as the Chicago Cubs, Minnesota Vikings, and Washington Wizards. A chronic lack of success at the highest level will make a fan rationalize that a higher power is at play to cope with the pain of consistent loss.
It is easy to dismiss fans who think that their teams are cursed. But this week in the wake of Aaron Rodgers rupturing his Achilles tendon four plays into his time as the quarterback of the New York Jets, it is harder to just dismiss the notion that the Jets are a snake bitten franchise. New York’s AFC franchise has not had a winning record in over a decade and was hoping to change fate with the signing of Rodgers to finally reach another Super Bowl. Instead his injury has created more questions than answers for a franchise that has been riddled with mismanagement and frustration since it won Super Bowl III in 1968.
Decades of Waiting
I grew up in New York City in the 1990s. Unlike many of my classmates, I did not have fandom that I inherited from my parents. My father was a Palestinian immigrant and my mother was a native Michigander and they both did not have a huge interest in American sports. As a result, I discovered sports and teams on my own without much prodding from anyone. I gravitated to the Knicks early on due to my fascination with Patrick Ewing, but finding a football team was more of a challenge.
While I found the Knicks and stuck with them in the mid-90s, I didn’t gravitate to the sport of football until the late 90s. And I found myself in the position to choose either the Jets or the Giants as my football team. The Jets at the time, had players that I found likable and interesting such as Curtis Martin, Keyshawn Johnson, Bryan Cox, and Aaron Glenn. The Giants on the other hand featured players such as Tiki Barber, Amani Toomer, Michael Strahan, and Jessie Armstead. And for a brief moment I found myself gravitating towards the Jets. This changed when the Giants drafted Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne in the 2000 NFL Draft and marketed the backfield with Tiki Barber as “Thunder & Lightning”. As a 13 year old kid I was hooked.
In the years that followed, as I followed the Giants en route to three Super Bowl appearances and two historic Super Bowl victories over Tom Brady’s New England Patriots, I started to understand the depths of struggle with being a Jets fan. Since the year 2000, the Jets have only made the playoffs 6 times, most of those coming during the Rex Ryan era, with their last appearance occurring in 2010. In that time the Jets have gone through 6 coaches and 10 different quarterbacks, while posting 11 seasons where they lost 10 games or more. There have been failed draft picks such as Vernon Gholston and Dee Milliner and fruitless free agent acquisitions such as Trumaine Johnson.
Jets fans have been waiting their turn to enjoy some success in New York City. They have seen the Giants win two titles, they have seen the Patriots enjoy unprecedented success in their division, and have been left searching for their own savior that could take them to new heights. This is what the Aaron Rodgers signing, and ironically the Brett Favre signing years before, was trying to accomplish. To make the Jets a Super Bowl contender. And yet in a cruel bit of cosmic mockery, Jets fans are left to wonder what is next for their favorite team before the Rodgers era could even begin. It is the latest example of the misfortune of the so-called “little brother” teams of New York, and how they simply cannot get out of their own way, much to the chagrin of their loyal fans.
Little Brother Syndrome
Playing in a large market in the United States poses challenges that simply do not exist in smaller markets. The media is larger and as a result more unforgiving as they look for an edge against their counterparts. The temptations in these markets are more prevalent as well, as is a fan base that expects wins and titles every year. It is perhaps more difficult to be in a city like New York or Los Angeles where multiple teams exist. For these situations, there is often a classification of the two types of teams that occupy the same metropolis: the prominent legacy franchise and the upstart younger franchise, or the “little brother”.
In New York City, there are two teams in each of the major sports. In the NBA, there are the Knicks, one of the league's oldest franchises, and the Nets who played in New Jersey up until moving to Brooklyn in 2012. In baseball, the city is dominated by the Yankees, one of the most successful sports franchises in history. They are contrasted by the New York Mets, who have won two championships but are defined by their dysfunction (as we have seen this year in the wake of lavish free agent spending for minimal results). In football, it is the Giants who are one of the league's original 8 franchises, and the Jets who came over from the AFL. For many in New York, if you are a fan of a legacy franchise you are usually a fan of the other ones in other sports. For example, if you are a Giants fan there is a good chance you also root for the Yankees, Knicks, and Rangers in the NHL.
There is an arrogance that comes with the fans of these teams, that they are superior to the other team in the town. We have seen similar feelings in Los Angeles basketball where Clippers fans are always diminished by the unavoidable spotlight of the Lakers. In New York, the titles speak for themselves. The Yankees have won 27 titles to the Mets 2, the Giants have won 4 Super Bowls to the Jets 1, and even the Knicks who have not won a title in 50 years have 2 championships while the Nets haven’t won any. The broad stroke approach to these secondary teams is that they will inevitably find a way to lose, that they do not have the championship pedigree needed to succeed and find the success that their more tenured counterparts have faced.
In some ways, it almost feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The city expects a team like the Jets to fail disastrously, and the team has thus far obliged. There is a chaos to the Jets, that even during times of success they are so outlandish and run so hot that they will inevitably self-implode. The Rex Ryan era of the Jets was considered by many a success, since that team made two consecutive conference championship appearances. And yet throughout his tenure, the team finished with a very mediocre 44-50 record over 6 seasons. Ryan’s tenacious defense and style fizzled out quickly and the Jets faded back into oblivion. This has seemed to be the pattern for the Jets, that there were quick flashes of greatness only to be snuffed out and fade back into darkness. This lack of success can be traced back to the same reason why many teams are unsuccessful: poor decisions at the quarterback position.
It can be argued that the quarterback position is the most valued in all of sports. In America’s most popular game, it is by far the position that hinges the axis of power the most. Your team may have great players at every position, but if they do not have a quarterback then they have a limit to how successful they can be. Since 1983 the Jets have drafted the following players at quarterback in the first 2 rounds of the draft:
1983: Ken O’Brien
1991: Browning Nagle
2000: Chad Pennington
2006: Kellen Clemens
2009: Mark Sanchez
2013: Geno Smith
2016: Christian Hackenberg
2018: Sam Darnold
2021: Zach Wilson
In those drafts the Jets missed out on players like Dan Marino (1983), Tom Brady (2000), Dak Prescott (2016), Josh Allen (2018), Lamar Jackson (2018), and Justin Fields (2021). Of those names, Chad Pennington and Mark Sanchez had the most success, leading the team to playoff appearances. But despite being adequate signal callers, they were never the type of players that take a team to the next level. They were simply not the types of quarterbacks that altered the course of a franchise that has lost so much.
So when drafting fails, the general course of action is to sign a quarterback in free agency or via trade. This has worked out for many teams in the past, such as when Matthew Stafford was acquired by the Los Angeles Rams and immediately proceeded to lead them to a Super Bowl win. In the modern era, the Jets have tried to bring in multiple quarterbacks to achieve the success that has eluded them. They brought in Vinny Testaverde in the late 90s and he promptly led them to a 12-1 record, and then he was hurt the following season. They brought in a 39 year old Brett Favre in 2008 and he led them to an 8-3 start, until getting injured and then fading to a 9-7 record.
From there they tried to build through the draft with Mark Sanchez who started his career strong but was not the playmaker they were hoping that he was. They then turned to Geno Smith who never had the buy-in of the regime in New York and ultimately failed before finding success in Seattle last year. Their last two quarterbacks, Sam Darnold and Zach Wilson, have been underwhelming. So what are the Jets to do? They decided that Aaron Rodgers, another aging superstar, was the answer. And in the cruelest of Jets fates, he is gone for the season after 4 plays. Rodgers has insisted in the days since his injury that he plans to rehab and come back, but we are left to wonder what the future of the Jets looks like with a 40 year old quarterback coming back from a serious Achilles injury.
Complex Timelines and Curses
The Jets are currently in a unique position. They have an abundance of young and exciting talent at multiple positions. On offense, receiver Garrett Wilson and running back Breece Hall seem like future Pro Bowlers. On defense, they feature lockdown corner Sauce Gardner and interior lineman Quinnen Williams. All of these players are under the age of 25 and the future of the Jets. The team is in a position to win today, and the injury of Rodgers and the return of Zach Wilson puts all of those aspirations on hold.
The Jets are now in a precarious position of potentially playing a lost season, one that had Super Bowl aspirations but now will feel fortunate to win 8 games. The issue that they face is that if they are to wait for Rodgers, there is a hope that he comes back similar to his old self which is no guarantee. And if he is not, then next year will also be lost, requiring another quarterback to be drafted, since Zach Wilson’s contract extension will be looming. In essence, this injury has the potential to set the Jets back for the next half-decade.
With all of this information in mind, it is hard to not think that the Jets are a cursed franchise. There has been mismanagement through bad scouting and free agency decisions. But the team has featured talented players and has simply been unable to put the pieces together. Their future remains in doubt in a division that seems to have two rising teams the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins. Jets fans are some of the most passionate and loyal fans in the entire NFL, and this diminishment of hope without a chance to gain any momentum seems cruel if nothing else. With this latest setback, we have to wonder if the team will ever see the success that its fans so desperately crave.