Aaron Rodgers’ injury hits home for Ron Rivera

Ron Rivera still remembers that feeling on the sideline — the feeling of watching a veteran just signed to be the starting quarterback go down only a few snaps into his tenure with the team.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, who signed with Washington to be its starter in 2021, left the field with a hip injury only 16 snaps into the season opener that year and didn’t return for the rest of the season. He eventually retired without taking another snap.

“When you put so much into one effort, one specific effort, it takes the wind out of your sails a little, and you got to adjust,” Rivera said. ” … That was a hard one. I can only imagine what they’re going through in New York.”

New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered a season-ending Achilles’ injury Monday in only his fourth snap with the team, abruptly ending what the franchise hoped would be the start of a new era. The Jets gave up a haul of draft picks to acquire Rodgers from Green Bay in April and later signed him to a revised deal that includes $75 million fully guaranteed.

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“It’s not going to be the first nor the last time that a starting quarterback goes down and somebody rises up to the occasion and rolls,” Jets Coach Robert Saleh said Tuesday.

The Jets now move ahead with Zach Wilson, the former first-round pick whose struggles the past three seasons (8-14 as a starter) prompted the trade for Rodgers.

Rodgers’s injury was yet another reminder of the importance of a role that typically receives little fanfare: the backup quarterback.

“It’s not ‘Madden’ in the sense that we can just plug and play anybody,” Saleh said Wednesday, referencing the popular video game. “There’s a lot of meetings, a lot of practices, a lot of nuance, a lot of understanding why things are the way they are that go into it.”

Last season was the year of the backup; a record 68 quarterbacks started at least one game, according to TruMedia.

In Washington in recent seasons, a capable backup has been crucial. Eight quarterbacks have started at least one game for the franchise during Rivera’s three seasons as coach, including Garrett Gilbert, who was plucked from the New England Patriots’ practice squad in December 2021 and tasked with starting four days later.

The most tenured quarterback for Washington during the Rivera era has been Taylor Heinicke, a player on the brink of retiring when the Commanders signed him late in the 2020 season — not as their backup, but as their emergency quarterback during the coronavirus pandemic.

Heinicke later replaced Alex Smith and started in a playoff loss to Tampa Bay that season, replaced Fitzpatrick the following season and then replaced Carson Wentz for a spell in 2022. He went 12-11-1 as a starter for the franchise before signing with the Atlanta Falcons in March.

“He wanted to play, but he also knew that he may not play all the time,” Rivera said of Heinicke. “He was always ready to help, but he was also always ready to get in.”

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When Washington decided to turn to second-year player Sam Howell as its starter this season, finding the right backup was paramount. Rivera knew what it was like having a solid backup in Heinicke, and now had a 22-year-old starter with only one NFL game on his résumé.

“First of all, when you target a guy, you want to do a background and kind of see how people feel about him — see if there are any issues or anything,” Rivera said in March. “ … The next thing you hear is that he’s a guy that learns very quickly.”

Jacoby Brissett checked the boxes.

“Everybody we talked to said the same thing,” Rivera said Wednesday. “‘He’s going to be phenomenal, he’s going to help you at quarterback, he’s going to come in and compete, he’s going to want to play. That’s what you want.”

Said Brissett: “Early in my career I just saw how vital some of the good teammates were. Just my rookie year, with the Tom Bradys, the Devin McCourtys, the Matthew Slaters and Ron Harmons, guys like that. I saw the impact that had … for not only their success but the team’s success, and it’s just something that I’ve always tried to carry along with it.”

Good backups also have to adjust on the fly — and on few practice reps. In practices, the starter typically gets all the reps with the first-team offense.

“That’s why you look for that kind of a veteran, because he doesn’t have to have a lot of reps,” Rivera said. “When he runs the scout team, you want a guy that’s going to have some energy for the scout team. It’s unbelievable when Jacoby is out there running the scout team, how much he eggs on the defense to compete and gets them going. But that’s what you want from that guy.”

The 30-year-old Brissett played for four NFL teams before arriving in Washington and last season played his finest yet as a fill-in for Deshaun Watson in Cleveland. As a starter, he went 4-7 and notched career highs in completion percentage (64.1 percent) and passer rating (89.1).

His experience with multiple teams, coaches and offenses has shown in ways that don’t always show up in stats. Now in his eighth season in the league, he and Howell coordinated offseason throwing sessions in Florida, where Brissett is from, with some of Washington’s skill players.

“He has been in this league for a long time, and he knows what to expect,” Howell said. “He’s done a really good job just throughout the week in helping me and telling me little things that he sees on film that would help him if he was playing.”

During games, Brissett stands next to offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy on the sideline, wearing his helmet so he can hear Bieniemy’s play calls to Howell. Every so often, Brissett can be seen pointing to the field to alert his teammates to a specific detail about the defense, or reminding them about a certain nuance of a play.

“When Sam comes to the sideline, they may go back to a specific play, and Jacoby will ask him, ‘Hey, did you see that?’ Or ‘what did you see? Why did you go over there?’ Just as if he was a coach,” Rivera said. “Those are all the questions that you typically get from a coach. But Jacoby will also say something to him that probably the coaches won’t see because Jacoby has done it.”

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