Eighty days since surgery to repair a ruptured left Achilles tendon suffered in Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills.
That Rodgers is practicing so soon after a catastrophic injury is another remarkable achievement in his career. But now he's in a race against time. He has 19 days remaining in his 21-day practice window to convince doctors, and perhaps himself, that he's physically capable of playing a football game. If he gets medical clearance, he must decide if it's worth the risk. Coach Robert Saleh said Rodgers will play if he is cleared and wants to do it.
To play or not to play? By the time his surgery turns 100 days old, we could have an answer to the question, one that surely will grip sports fans, medical experts and casual observers. No NFL player has ever returned from a torn Achilles in less than five months.
"Never say never," said wide receiver Allen Lazard, adding that Rodgers -- a friend from their days with the Green Bay Packers -- has a competitive "stubbornness to prove everyone else wrong. It's very on-brand."
But should he play?
"I want him to be happy and I want him to be as healthy as possible, not only today or tomorrow and the rest of the season, but long term, down the road, when he's actually retired and hanging the cleats up," Lazard said.
It's important to note that Rodgers isn't close to being game-ready, which he readily admits. As Saleh said on Wednesday, when the Jets officially designated him for return, "This isn't so much getting ready to play as much as it is a progression in his rehab."
Conceivably, they could give him more time after the 21-day window, activating him from injured reserve, but he would take up a spot on the 53-man roster. A return to action appears unlikely, but let's dive into it:
Three reasons Rodgers shouldn't play
It defies conventional medical thinking. It takes at least three months for a repaired Achilles tendon to heal properly, according to medical experts. Typically, that's when muscle-building rehab starts, which can last another few months. Rodgers returned to practice on Wednesday, a week shy of the three-month mark. Though not cleared for contact -- basically, he's practicing in a controlled environment -- he's still moving around and putting stress on his Achilles.
"It would be safer and give the best possible chance of 100% recovery if he waits closer to five months," said Dr. Steven Neufeld, an orthopedic surgeon at The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics, who specializes in Achilles injuries and serves as a clinical instructor at Georgetown University. He said there's a risk that the tendon will stretch if not completely healed, causing permanent weakness.
Rodgers has acknowledged his timetable is ambitious, saying he won't be 100% until the four-month mark (mid-January), but he believes in the rehab program that was created by Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who performed the surgery on Sept. 13. Rodgers was thought to be targeting Dec. 24 for his return -- a home game against the Washington Commanders -- but hinted Thursday in an interview with beat writers that he could return sooner.
Asked how he'd react to seeing Rodgers on the field, Neufeld said, "I would hope to god that the Jets' offensive line is the best of any offensive line that's ever been. They need to protect that quarterback more than anybody they've had to protect."
The Jets' offensive line is anything but the best. It has allowed 47 sacks, 30th in the league.
There's virtually no shot at the playoffs. ESPN analytics say the Jets (4-7) have less than a 1% chance of snapping their 12-year playoff drought -- the NFL's longest active slump. Rodgers said the team's postseason viability will be a factor in his decision, saying Thursday, "I don't think it would make a ton of sense" to play in a game with no playoff implications.
The next two games are against the Atlanta Falcons (5-6) and Houston Texans (6-5). If the Jets win both and get to 6-7 -- a huge ask, considering their offensive woes -- it would set the stage for a potentially dramatic return. Imagine the groundswell for Rodgers in that situation.
Saleh wasn't about to comment on a hypothetical, but he has faith in his quarterback to make the right decision. "I promise," Saleh said, "Aaron is not going to do anything that puts himself in harm's way."
There's always next year. Rodgers has expressed a desire to play in 2024, which should make it easier to take a mulligan on this season. With nearly all their key players under contract, and with another draft and free agency cycle, the Jets should be able to improve the team around Rodgers, setting up another all-in season.
In other words, the Rodgers window isn't closing, so there's no need to rush back with now-or-never urgency.
The worst-case scenario is he returns and suffers another significant injury, jeopardizing his availability for the start of 2024. Unless the front office secures a big-time backup quarterback, the Jets will have compromised another season. There are also financial ramifications. Rodgers is due to make a fully guaranteed $38 million in 2024, and you can bet owner Woody Johnson wants a max return on his investment.
Three reasons Rodgers should play
It would be one of the great comebacks in sports history. He's a four-time MVP and former Super Bowl champion, so his legacy is secure. But imagine how much he'd burnish his image by pulling off a medical miracle. He'd cement his place in history as one of the sport's all-time tough guys. Rodgers acknowledged he's fueled by the prospect of being the first to return in less than five months. Teammates say he's motivated by showing the world that norms don't apply to him.
"I think that's the point he's trying to make," defensive end John Franklin-Myers said. "Everybody's going to give you this box and you're inside of that box until you're not. Then you're a unicorn. All it takes is for somebody to do that. Here's his opportunity to show he can."
From the beginning, Rodgers decided to use the "Pat McAfee Show" as a platform to chronicle his recovery, controlling the narrative with weekly updates. A return to action would provide a remarkable conclusion to his high-profile recovery. Some believe that is a motivating factor, too.
He can change the narrative. Barring a dramatic turnaround, 2023 will be remembered as The Season That Wasn't. Or The Season That Lasted Four Plays. Rodgers recently told the "Pat McAfee Show" he feels a sense of "personal guilt" for his injury, which sabotaged the team's chances. Down to their third-string quarterback, Tim Boyle, the Jets have managed only 10 offensive touchdowns in 11 games.
Rodgers, saying he feels "powerless" as a spectator, could provide a spark, assuming he can approach his past form. That's hardly a guarantee given the long layoff. It might be too late for a serious playoff run, but maybe he would give the Jets a feel-good finish to carry into the offseason. The locker room would love to see him back on the field, but no one wants him to be reckless.
"If his mind is into it and people on his team are saying, 'Go for it,' and he wants to, then we'll all be behind his back," linebacker C.J. Mosley said.
He can help his buddies. Looking to ease Rodgers' transition to a new team, the Jets surrounded him with a handful of familiar faces -- namely, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and wide receivers Lazard and Randall Cobb. None of them have performed up to expectations.
Rodgers also could help reduce the pressure on Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas, who are 15-30 since teaming up in 2021. Hackett, in particular, is facing intense criticism from fans and media for fielding an offense that ranks 31st in points scored per game (12.7).
"I want to play and I feel like the Johnsons [owners Woody and Christopher] want me to be here," Rodgers said. "It's a really good organization structure. I feel like Joe has drafted really well. I feel like Robert is a fantastic coach. So is Nathaniel, but those decisions are out of my hands."