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Robert Saleh Explains How Aaron Rodgers Has Already Raised the Bar for the Jets

The coach says OTAs couldn’t have gone any better, as he talks about his new quarterback’s deep ball, love language, leadership style and more.

The wow moments have been in ample supply in North Jersey. Jets coach Robert Saleh, in fact, got two more just last week.

The first one came Monday, at one of the team’s final OTA practices before breaking for the summer. On this one, after collecting the snap, Aaron Rodgers stared down the middle of the defense in a seven-on-seven drill, quickly moved his head left, then pivoted and reset too quickly for anyone on the other side to react. As the defense tried, he released a go ball down the right sideline for Malik Taylor, who spent parts of the last four seasons in Green Bay.

“When he let it go, I was like, Well, that’s overthrown,” Saleh says, grinning ear to ear, sitting at a table in the Jets’ lunchroom Friday morning. “And then, the ball just kept floating and floating and floating, and it hit the guy in stride. I was like, Oh my God. It was unbelievable.”

The second one came in the same session, and while it may not have been as physically impressive an act from the quarterback, it did so much more to illustrate, once again, for the coaches on hand just who they now have playing the most position in all of sports.

“The second one, it’s because you see it in games, you just never see it that way,” Saleh continues. “Me, personally, I’ve never been around a quarterback like that. We’ve had some good quarterbacks—Russell [Wilson], Jimmy [Garoppolo], Matt Schaub. This is different, and not to speak poorly on them. So he throws a ball to C.J. Uzomah. And I was like, He’s covered! And he says, Guy’s not looking at me, he’s open.”

And sure enough, when Saleh went back to look at the throw, he saw what Rodgers did—creating an opportunity because he saw the location of the defender’s eyes. Rodgers moved Uzomah into an open space underneath by putting the ball there, knowing the guy covering his tight end would be a tick behind him, because he didn’t have vision on the quarterback.

Rodgers’s ability to draw these kinds of gasps from even the most veteran figures in pro football is, of course, a big reason why the Jets went to the lengths they did to land the future Hall of Famer. But those are hardly the only signs the team has gotten over the last two months of just what they acquired in the Packers legend.

On Friday, the Jets wrapped up their first offseason program with him. This particular Monday marks seven weeks since the blockbuster trade with Green Bay was completed. And in the time since, there’s been sign after sign of just how the bar has been raised.

“It couldn’t have gone any better,” Saleh said, on the final day of the program, flashing another smile before repeating himself. “Couldn’t have gone any better.”

The hard part, of course, comes next. But for the Jets, so far, so good.

Jets coach Robert Saleh at a podium

Everyone knows the bar has been raised, but Saleh says the Aaron Rodgers experience has lived up so far.

We’re fast approaching vacation. But before that, we’ve got a big week of minicamps coming and plenty to get to on the site Monday, including …

• The NFL’s future in Jacksonville.

• More on the prospects of the Saudis in pro football.

• Takeaways on DeAndre Hopkins, and how running backs and pass rushers are paid.

But we’re starting with my quick trip to New Jersey at the end of last week to figure out what to make of the spot the Jets are in, as they closed down their spring work and moved their focus to what should be a wild, all-eyes-on-us summer for the franchise.

Those who were with Rodgers in Green Bay and now have seen him with the Jets—Taylor and fellow receivers Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb, as well as offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett—do see a difference in this Rodgers from the Packers version.

They see him open with everyone around him. Talking. Communicating. He’s leading the young guys along. He’s teaching Hackett’s offense. He’s very, very present.

That difference, by the way, may not even be all that intentional.

In Green Bay, in so many ways, he didn’t have to do all this of late because he had relationships, mostly good and some not as good, established over 18 years in Wisconsin. In Jersey, he’s got maybe a handful of those and a clean slate with everyone else. And just as, for Rodgers, that’s meant tee time times with Saleh, it’s meant getting on a first-name basis with coaches, players and nonfootball staff all the same.

“He’s very thoughtful and deliberate in the way he goes about things,” says Saleh. “During OTAs, he’s gone out with the guys. And every weekend, he’s gone out with a different set of guys to get some time with everybody. So that’s the stuff in the locker room. When he is in the building, it’s very important for him to know everyone’s name, whether it’s the chef, the equipment guys, the trainers, people upstairs.

“It’s very important to him to understand the building in general. I call it love language. Everybody has it. Relationships and connecting with people is very important to him. And that’s not something you’d have thought based on narratives. But it clearly is.”

It’s also not what you’d think of as a difference maker between the lines of the practice field and, in time, the game field. But those who know Rodgers will tell you there’s some pretty simple math that adds up to it being one, which is a big part of why, over the last few years, he’s been so adamant about having Cobb with him and why getting to bring Lazard with him to his new home was such a big deal.

Add a level of trust between teammates to how you’ll perform with them in the highest-stress situations, and you can get to the answer of this equation quickly. The logic follows that if those teammates see Rodgers pour into others the way they’re trying to get caught up on what he and Hackett helped cultivate in Green Bay—a system that has its bones in the nine years Hackett’s dad and Rodgers’s first coach, Mike McCarthy, spent together at Pitt and with the Chiefs—then it’ll be easy for the quarterback to ask for the best from all of them.

Maybe the best example of that came after Rodgers tweaked his calf at the start of OTAs. He took care of the injury, yes, but he also used the time to coach Zach Wilson, the quarterback he displaced, through the snaps Wilson was getting with the first team. While Rodgers did that, he was also working with other skill guys, giving everyone insight into the depth of his knowledge of the offense, while mentoring a guy who could eventually succeed him.

“He’s got great insight to the game, obviously,” Saleh continues. “There are suggestions on practice, stuff that he likes. Right now, it’s about the offense getting jelled as quickly as possible. Once the season hits, you want to hit on all cylinders. So everything we’re doing is for Hackett, Aaron, to make sure those guys are in the position they need to be in, so they’re getting all they need out of every single practice. It can be something small. It’s, Hey, let’s put a play clock on this. Just little things. Nothing outrageous, it’s just been little things.”

And in those little things comes a level of detail that raises the bar for everyone, coaches included. Hackett told the offensive staff that the communication would be different with Rodgers than anyone they’d coached—more peer to peer than teacher to pupil. Therein would come a certain pressure that Tom Brady and Peyton Manning used to put on their coaches, pressure those guys apply without doing anything other than being themselves.

That pressure? It’s simply to be at the level Rodgers is on a daily basis and bring good football reason to every discussion, whether or not you agree with the quarterback.

“At the end of the day, he still wants to be coached,” Saleh says. “He doesn’t want to be told he’s always doing a good job. He wants to be challenged. All these players want to be challenged. So it’s not necessarily giving him something new. It’s just challenging him to be better, and challenging him on every detail that he’s trying to execute, challenging him on his footwork, challenging him on the way he verbalizes things in the huddle.

“Just challenging every thought he has and not in a way where you create something new. It’s making what we do better. Players respect that, and I’m not talking about him, I’m talking about every player. They want to be challenged to be better, and the great ones, the Hall of Famers, the All-Pro guys, they don’t want to be told they’re doing a good job all day, because they know when they’re not. They know when a play wasn’t good enough.”

I then asked Saleh whether Rodgers has actually told him, explicitly, that he wants to be coached.

“So he hasn’t yet,” the coach responded. “My hope is he never has to.”

Aaron Rodgers has the Jets thinking Super Bowl since he was traded from the Packers.

Rodgers has come in with a real focus on building relationships inside the Jets building.

The pressure on everyone to clear the bar that acquiring Rodgers has set is there, for sure, and Saleh’s words show the Jets aren’t running from it—if the quarterback doesn’t have to ask such questions, then the coach’s program is running as it should.

Still the cauldron the Jets are about to be tossed into will burn hot as training camp starts and the hype train pulls into Florham Park. And as much as Saleh tries to lay out to his players what’s ahead, and he has, there’s an element of having every ball thrown and caught in August analyzed as if it were the divisional playoffs that has to be lived to be understood.

Rodgers has seen it, and lived it, before. Most of the others here have not.

“I tell people, there’s being ready for something and being prepared for something,” Saleh says. “Being ready for the circus that’s coming? I guess it’s another way of saying everyone’s ready to fight until they get punched in the mouth. Are you prepared for that? I think our guys are preparing in the manner where it’s, Keep the main thing the main thing, focus on the things you have control over. Then you don’t have to worry about the media. Then it doesn’t matter if the game’s at one, four or eight o’clock on Sunday; eight o’clock on Monday; Thursday.

“It doesn’t matter when the game is if you’re focused on the right things, which is you, yourself and your personal best every single day. Then, all that other stuff becomes just auxiliary stuff for the fans to read. It’s external. It’s something we have no control over. So why waste our time on it?”

And Saleh will concede there’s part of this that even he can’t fully be ready for—now being the coach of a team that will sit in the eye of a coming media hurricane.

That said, he will pick other coaches’ brains, and he does have one experience that he believes will help him navigate it, and a mentor from that situation who gave him a blueprint. Saleh was a defensive quality-control assistant for the 2013 Seahawks, a team that came off a 12–4 breakthrough in ’12 with a raft of expectations, both on a young quarterback finding his way, and a young defense getting its footing as a dominant unit.

There were strong personalities in that locker room. There was, as has been well documented since, some discord, too. All the while, Pete Carroll kept his hands on the wheel, trusting what he and his staff had established. Those Seahawks started the season 11–1. They wound up winning the Super Bowl, and went back again in 2014.

“He was incredible,” Saleh says of Carroll. “It’s consistent messaging. The other part is he’s himself, he doesn’t try to b.s., he’s not trying to be anyone else, he’s still gonna shoot hoops, he’s gonna chew gum like a horse chews an apple. He doesn’t care about perception. He’s extremely authentic, and his messaging is very consistent. And I think if you’re authentic and you’re genuine to yourself, and messaging is authentic and true to who you are, and you’re not just chasing the moment, I think that’s the best you can do for your team.”

And because he was authentic, Saleh continues, Carroll’s message became the team’s credo.

“The Super Bowl year, we had two things—Leave no doubt and What’s next?” Saleh says. “Those were the two little cliché things every day. Leave no doubt in the work that you’re doing, and when you’ve done that work, What’s next? So it was very daily-oriented. Like, I’m gonna leave no doubt that today’s going to be my best day, and then the day is done, what’s next? There was never satisfaction. Even when we won the Super Bowl, it was like, O.K., what’s next?

“And I really appreciate that mindset, where we were so day-to-day driven, and so ready to move on to the next step. It was a really cool process, how that was built.”

The lesson also reinforces what Saleh and his coaches have tried to build for three years with the Jets. It’s just a lot easier to drive the message home now, with the focus that having Rodgers brings to all the goals that any team would set.

“This has been our message from Day 1,” Saleh says. “If you treat every moment like a championship moment, then it doesn’t matter, because every game is a championship game.”

Still, the reality is the reality—the stakes have been raised, and, make no mistake, the urgency on the Jets to get to actual championship games has been ramped up.

There was one more specific thing I wanted to ask Saleh before our time was up, and that was whether the rule that he and his best friend, Packers coach Matt LaFleur, had set back in the winter had been lifted.

As I wrote in my story going inside the trade negotiations, the two agreed at the time not to talk about Rodgers at all, leaving it up to their GMs, Joe Douglas and Brian Gutekunst, to work through the deal.

“No, we’ve talked. I did talk to him, just to say, Man, this guy is pretty good at foosball,” Saleh says, with a laugh. “Matt agrees. Matt loves him, and really, really appreciated his time with him. I mean, what’s there to say? He’s a Hall of Fame quarterback. Matt, he’s focused [on the Packers], but we’ve talked about a few things here and there. Matt’s always been very complimentary.”

What went without saying there was the fact that LaFleur’s relationship with Rodgers was the one that sustained the quarterback’s final couple of years as a Packer, when other bonds that Rodgers had within the organization were on the rocks.

Just that Saleh knows how vital relationships are to Rodgers—as he’s building one on the practice field and the golf course with his quarterback—is a good sign he’s done his research. So too is the level of input and command Saleh and Hackett have given Rodgers, allowing him to be a full partner in what the Jets are going to be in 2023.

And while Saleh will use that line again about being prepared, but not ready, because you can’t be until you get punched in the mouth, it’s not hard for an independent observer to see the buy-in, even in late June. Saleh said Rodgers has been a perfect attendee of the Jets’ offseason program since the trade, save for a day he had a previous engagement, and the rest of the team has fallen in line behind its new leader.

That much was obvious on Friday, at the team’s last-day-of-school OTA practice, with the 40-day summer break coming right after the session broke. It was apparent in how the receivers and defensive backs fought for every ball. It even showed up in a defensive-line drill that had Jermaine Johnson and Bryce Huff drafting teams, then having those teams compete to see which would get off the ball, and to a tackling dummy, faster.

Everything feels like a high-leverage moment here. Because with Rodgers aboard, it is.

“His presence creates hope,” Saleh says. “And when you have something to fight for, it’s just human nature, you’re gonna lock in a little bit more. For sure, his presence, his words carry weight, he’s got a great demeanor to him, he’s been fantastic with his teammates, he’s been fantastic in the locker room. And the level of detail has gone up. I think it’s more …”

The coach pauses then to pick his words.

“There’s a belief that this group can do something special,” he continues. “But at the same time, I don’t think it’s really changed the mindset or the work ethic, because I think we’ve got a tremendous locker room, full of guys who are internally driven, who just want to be their personal best. But yeah, does it create a little excitement and buzz, for sure, because having a guy like him who’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, who can, I mean, he can sling the rock now, it’s unbelievable. Having him here brings a lot of hope, obviously.”

Little by little, and with each little wow moment he’s generated, or relationship he’s built, all that hope becomes a bit more real. And soon enough, we’ll get to see whether the Jets can take a punch.