Did James Jones ever actually leave the Green Bay Packers?
It sure didn’t look that way on Sunday at Soldier Field. Jones looked very comfortable and every bit himself in the Packers' offense, pulling in four passes for 51 yards and two touchdowns as Green Bay held off the stubborn Bears, 31-23.
Jones would have had a third touchdown catch were it not nullified by a penalty.
Yes, officially, Jones was gone for one season, playing with the Oakland Raiders before getting cut and then sipping a training camp cup of coffee with the New York Giants this year before being cut once more. But he looked perfectly at ease and on the same page with quarterback Aaron Rodgers as the game unfolded.
Afterward, Jones said it was as if he had never left.
“Yeah, it felt good and like we just didn’t miss a beat, but we’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Jones. “He (Rodgers) and I the last couple of days have been talking and talking and talking and talking about what he’s looking for, where he needs me to be and things like that, and he gave me some opportunities today and I went up and made a play. I should have had three touchdowns. I let that last one go and I’m probably not going to be able to sleep tonight. But I’m glad we got the win.”
Jones’ first touchdown was a 13-yard thing of beauty as he outleaped and outmuscled Bears defensive back Alan Ball, ripping the ball way near the back of the end zone. In the second quarter, Rodgers again targeted Jones in the red zone, though that 8-yard touchdown was nullified by a holding penalty on David Bakhtiari. Then, in the third frame, Jones caught a 1-yard TD dart from Rodgers.
When asked if he was expecting to have a big day, Jones calmly said, “No, the way our offense is, we’re a no-huddle team. So, you never know when you’re going to get opportunities. So when the ball comes your way, you just need to make a play. In that receiving room, that’s what we pride ourselves on – to make a play when you get a chance. And that’s what I did.”
The only opportunity Jones didn't fully cash in on was Rodgers' deep pass in the fourth quarter. He was interfered with on the play, however, which resulted in a 34-yard gain and set up the clinching touchdown.
“No disrespect to James,” said Rodgers, “but I don’t think it was that out of character. Like many other guys that have gone elsewhere and come back, there is a comfort in this offense for our guys who have flourished at times and I think that Jones is one of those guys that really feels comfortable on offense.”
If coach Mike McCarthy was at all surprised by Jones’ smooth return, he certainly wasn’t letting on, either.
“Well, just knowing Aaron Rodgers and their relationship, if I was a betting man I would’ve bet the ball was going to go to him today and definitely rightfully so,” said McCarthy. “James looked like he never left. He’s in playing shape – obviously going through the preseason in New York. Aaron and J.J. have a connection as far as timing and so forth. J.J. made a huge catch down there in the end zone to our left. Yeah, I’m not surprised at all that J.J. came in and stepped right in and was able to play.”
McCarthy was asked if he was shocked that Jones was cut by the Raiders and the Giants in a span of four months.
“I’m not going to get into that,” McCarthy fired back. “I’m glad James Jones is here. It’s great to have him back. He’s a great guy in our locker room. He’s a wonderful family man. He’s always represented the Packers the right way. It’s great to have him back. It says a lot about James. He’s a pro. He’s a man that puts in a lot of extra hours. It’s not uncommon to run into him late at night downstairs doing extra things, whether it’s in the weight room or the training room. That’s how you play the way he played today. He’s a sneaky preparation guy. He doesn’t really want you to know he’s down there doing it. But he puts in a lot of extra time.”
McCarthy wasn’t the only one happy to have Jones back. Fellow receivers Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and Ty Montgomery must find ways to step up to fill the void left by Jordy Nelson's season-ending knee injury.
“Man, I was so excited for him to come back and have a game like that,” said Cobb. “The guy is amazing. Just to see him back and go out there and make the plays that he did, you’re just amazed that a guy like that has been cut by two teams in five months. Not a whole lot has changed since he left but we did have a few new wrinkles that he just had to pick up on and learn throughout the week. He did a great job with his preparation. You can’t replace Jordy and we’ve said that over and over. We’re three different guys. We can’t be Jordy but we’re going to go out and do what we do. Aaron’s going to find us and we’ll make plays when we’re called on.”
Montgomery, who returned three kickoffs for 106 yards (35.3 average) with a long of 46 yards, says he also plans to be part of the receiving mix. And, like Jones, when opportunity knocks he’s planning to answer.
“Just like with returning kicks and doing my role, (as a receiver) I just want to make sure that I execute my role and embrace it,” Montgomery explained. “As a fourth guy or a fifth guy, whatever it is, I’ve got to make sure I’m always ready to go. When those guys need a blow or if we ever put it four wides, whatever they ask me to do, I’ve got to be ready to go and embrace my role.”
Cobb (five catches, 38 yards, one touchdown), Adams (four catches, 59 yards) and Jones (four catches, 51 yards, two touchdowns) combined to catch 13 passes for 148 yards and all three of Rodgers' touchdowns. Cobb ignored his painful shoulder injury to snag all five passes thrown his way.
“I’m sore, definitely sore, but I expected that,” said Cobb. “It’s a contact sport and you’re going to get hit and you’re going to take shots. I tried to do the best I could. Was I apprehensive going into this game? Yeah, a little bit but I decided to fight through it and look for ways to do what I need to do.”
It was only the first step. But it was an important step for a receiving corps that must find ways to provide the offensive firepower that’s expected in Green Bay.