During a surprising rookie season, third-round pick James Jones placed himself among the top first-year players in the long history of the Green Bay Packers last year with 47 catches for 676 yards.
Bigger things were expected from the powerful Jones this season. Instead, Jones went down with a knee injury in the preseason against Denver. He aggravated the injury by landing on the knee against Dallas, Atlanta and Chicago and was inactive for six other games.
Before lining up to face Jacksonville, Jones had caught just 12 passes. Only one of those was longer than 9 yards.
"Yeah, I mean, he had a great offseason and we felt like he really was having an outstanding training camp until he got hurt at Denver," receivers coach Jimmy Robinson said on Friday. "Then it was just on again, off again trying to get healthy, then it would relapse. It was disappointing and I know frustrating for him. When you lose one of your playmakers, it has some impact on you."
Jones finally delivered the kind of impact the Packers had in mind last week, when he caught four passes for 132 yards.
"It feels good," Jones said. "The main thing is winning. If I don't catch a ball the whole season and we're winning, I'm fine with that. But just with what I've been through this year with injuries and things like that, it definitely was big for me to get out there and catch some passes. To show the coaching staff and the players that I still am the same guy and I still can make plays for this ballclub."
Robinson said neither he nor the other coaches had lost faith in Jones.
"I don't think anybody felt like he wasn't going to bounce back and become what he's been and what we expect him to be," Robinson said. "It was just a question of when it was going to happen, and he got some opportunities and made the most of them in that game."
Jones was one of the top players in the Packers' offseason program and, a year wiser and a year stronger after a late-season fade, both he and the team expected him to raise his game to another level. Jones had visions of a 1,000-yard season, joining starters Donald Driver and Greg Jennings in giving the Packers an unstoppable passing attack.
He looked on track to do just that in the preseason opener against the Bengals, when he was a Mack truck against a pair Cincinnati mosquitoes. Two defenders crunched Jones and crumpled to the turf, and a helmetless Jones trotted into the end zone with a 30-yard touchdown.
The next week at Denver, however, Jones was tackled by four defenders and tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Jones missed the final two preseason games as well as the opener against Minnesota. He caught four passes, including a 9-yard touchdown, at Week 2 in Detroit, but he aggravated the injury during the first series the next week against Dallas. He sat out the Week 4 game at Tampa Bay and tried to play in Week 5 against Atlanta, but just like the Dallas game, Jones aggravated the knee early.
He missed three more games, played in two, then landed wrong on the knee again against Chicago. He was deactivated for the New Orleans game, but now has played in three consecutive games.
Finally, he's healthy. As he demonstrated with gains of 46, 40 and 36 yards against the Jaguars.
After a season of pain and frustration, perhaps no player on the team is looking forward to these final games more than Jones.
"You always want to play well," Jones said, "but definitely going into these last two games, I definitely want to play well and go into the offseason knowing that I'm healthy and the coaches know I still can make plays for this ballclub and people know that I'm still the James Jones when I'm healthy. That's the main thing."
A tight-knit receiving corps was excited to see Jones finally break through the pain and put together a breakthrough performance.
"Oh, man, one thing about this young man over here, he has the talent to make those plays week in and week out," Jennings said. "It was definitely exciting, especially with our relationship that we have. Me and James share a special bond, and I can beat up on him. When he's not making plays, it's like, ‘You're always telling me to make a play. Why don't you make a play?' He went out there and he had a big day. I think that just goes to show what he can do when he's healthy."
Robinson hopes Jones' big day is a sign of things to come. Driver and Jennings have combined for 1,991 receiving yards, behind only Houston's Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter, Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin and Carolina's Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad. Imagine how good the Packers' 10th-ranked offense would have been with a healthy Jones.
"I always kind of felt like the sky's the limit a little bit for James," Robinson said. "He's got tremendous physical talent. If we can shake this injury thing and move past it, then I would expect that he would get back into the form he had early last year and be a guy who makes big plays for you and tough catches, because he's got such really good hands."
How good can Jones be if he, indeed, is over the injury bug?
"How good he can be remains to be seen," Robinson said. "Part of that is up to him and how hard he is willing to continue to work and put in the offseason again this year like he did last year and make the investment in all the things that we do around here during the offseason, which he did a year ago. I expect he will come back raring to go."
Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jones tries to salvage season
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