FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – When you pull up to the New York Jets' training facility, you come to a guard gate, manned by people who have worked for the Jets for years. On Wednesday, one of them summed up the state of the NFL's most snake-bitten team perfectly:
"It was such a big win. And such a big loss."
The NFL moves fast, though, and Jets head coach Robert Saleh, in words and tone, made it clear that the mourning period for Aaron Rodgers' Achilles’ tear was over, and the time had come to worry about the Dallas Cowboys, who the Jets play on Sunday. The Jets want Rodgers around when he is ready, he can have a headset on the sidelines, And Saleh said he would be shocked if Rodgers ends his career this way, although he indicated he has not talked to Rodgers about his plans. It has been a roller coaster for players, many of whom did not find out until after the Monday night overtime victory over the Buffalo Bills the severity of Rodgers' injury.
But the message to his team was about life after Rodgers, which begins now.
"I don't think there is anything to say," Saleh said. "It sounds cliché, it's next man up. Nobody cares, nobody cares that you've lost a player. At the end of the day, Sunday is coming. We've got to put our best foot forward. That's the harsh part of the business. I think guys understand that."
Rodgers has been around the facility this week -- tight end Tyler Conklin said he started to text Rodgers, and then struggled to come up with what to say -- but the focus now is on third-year quarterback Zach Wilson. The Jets will eventually bring in a veteran for depth at the position, but Saleh is committed to Wilson as the starter. He and players expressed confidence in Wilson and said they had seen real improvement in him during the offseason program and in training camp.
Rodgers talks often of speaking things into existence, and perhaps there is a little bit of that happening here. The Jets may need to talk themselves into believing Wilson is really changed. After all, it was his poor play last year that caused the Jets to woo Rodgers to replace him. The Jets' long-term plan was to have Wilson sit and learn from Rodgers for a few years, before Wilson might once again take the starting job, presumably older and wiser. Wilson is barely older and hopefully wiser, but the Jets don't have much choice but to line up with him – at least for now, his familiarity with the offense undoubtedly gives them the best chance to win. Saleh was blunt in his assessment of what he has seen from Wilson – the easy stuff doesn't look hard, as it did last year. As an example, he pointed to a little swing pass Wilson threw to running back Dalvin Cook on Monday night.
"We all know what those looked like a year ago," Saleh said.
And perhaps just as important, Saleh and the players insist they see renewed self-confidence from Wilson, important given how broken he appeared to be at the end of last season. He is also more at ease taking what defenses are giving the offense, rather than pressing to make a big play. Cook said everybody has to play better around Wilson, too.
"The really cool thing is Zach has improved so much in a little time. It's a great opportunity for him to become the player he wants to become," Conklin said.
But it's hard to miss the fact that several players in the locker room are there specifically because they wanted to play with Rodgers. Cook is one of those, and he wistfully said Wednesday that he had just wanted to get one handoff from "8" -- "a great." He will not get that, at least not this season.
"The game cheats you sometimes," Cook said.
It certainly feels like the Jets got cheated this season.