Last Sunday, following a game best described as a "conquest" by the Green Bay Packers over the Houston Texans, Aaron Rodgers was asked what message he had sent to his critics. His response: "Shhhhhh...."
And Packer Nation rejoiced. We celebrated this bold response to what was nearly two weeks of people questioning whether or not he had lost something from his MVP season last year. And, there's nothing wrong with rallying around your quarterback. Heck, most of us are still conditioned to rally around Rodgers dating back to the Favregate scandal.
But, if you're really going talk about who should be taking some pride in silencing his critics, look no further than the guys on the other side of those passes that Rodgers was suddenly connecting on like an boss again. And, none of those wide receivers have taken more criticism over the past few seasons than James Jones.
In fact, most of us, and I certainly include myself in that group, were ready to run James Jones out of town on a rail last season following the lockout. It wasn't that Jones was bad...he just wasn't playing as well as some of the guys around him. It didn't help his case that, at the time, he was the fourth (or fifth) man on the depth chart, behind superstars Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, as well as up-and-coming Jordy Nelson and a highly-touted rookie in Randall Cobb.
The Packers were spoiled at wide receiver, and with holes starting to appear at other position groups following the usual scavenger hunt that affects every Super Bowl-winning team, some of us had tired of Jones' inconsistent play. Why would we spend millions of dollars on a guy who was slowly letting his opportunities slip away, when we knew we had far bigger fish to fry in the Contract Extensions Department on the horizon?
Jones had been starkly similar to another pass receiver presently on the Packers' roster: making acrobatic circus catches perhaps once a game...highlight-reel material...but being utterly reliable on the routine catches that should be the bread-and-butter of any passing offense. Even though the Packers' offense was a big-play passing offense, dropped passes on 3rd-and-6 will doom any drive, and leave your quarterback glaring at the receiver.
And certainly, Jones has taken more than his share of flames from Rodgers over the years. Heck, Rodgers gave him a tongue-lashing just a few weeks ago during the Bears game when Jones cut off a route that resulted in an interception. It wasn't the first time that he had received criticism, and if it wasn't from Rodgers on the field, it was from us off of it.
There was a point in his development that also set off a few flags in the minds of many fans, when in November of 2010 he began discussing his development in the third person, following a string of dropped passes.
"James Jones could play better, yes," Jones said. "But James Jones believes to be up, you need opportunities. I can't throw the ball to myself. I can't do that."
Now, as a Packer fan, when players start talking about themselves in the third person, particularly an underachieving wide receiver, who is the first name that comes to mind? Of course, it is Randy "Randy plays when Randy wants to play" Moss, and for many of us, that was a nail in the coffin for Jones. Perhaps even more concerning was his willingness to passively "pass the buck" onto the guy throwing the passes.
So, when the lockout finally ended in the summer of 2011, many of us had written James Jones off already, a free-agent that had not been re-signed by Ted Thompson prior to his contract expired. Given the number of players Thompson strikes a deal with before they hit the open market, most of us figured that the GM was on board with us. Time to let Jones go and give more time to Nelson and this talented rookie.
We don't need five receivers all getting paid starting salaries, right?
But the lockout created a short, hyper-caffeinated free agent season, with players going faster than Antonio Freeman and Charles Jordan can switch car seats. Soon, the market dried up, and James Jones, who had been expecting the usual "I'm a backup on a Super Bowl Champion" contract from the Oakland Raiders, was left with no bidders.
Then, like a re-gifted gift being gifted back to you, we were somewhat shocked when he quietly signed a free-agent contract with the Packers. We thought we had just gotten rid of that Shake Weight, and suddenly, here it is under the Christmas tree. Again.
But two voices of reason placated us in a way that not negotiating a deal ahead of time ever could. First of all, Ted Thompson does not spend money frivolously, and gave Jones a market-worthy $9.4M contract over three years. Even so, many of us wondered how much of that money might have gone to keep Cullen Jenkins in the fold.
But the words of the man who had "pulled a Cutler" on Jones on the field was the one who who gave him the public voice of confidence.
"He's an important part of this team," Rodgers said of Jones. "He plays a big role for us. We need to add him back. We need to add John Kuhn back. Those are two guys out there right now who are important to us.
"It's not my decision, but I'm definitely pulling for those guys to bring 'em back."
So, perhaps begrudgingly, we accepted Jones back, and immediately rolled our eyes wen he was targeted only once against the Saints. He did get some playing time, and made a little more with the reduced targets he got, but he finished the season as perhaps the best and highest-paid fourth string WR in the league.
But in my years watching Ted Thompson, I've learned that more times than not, he's usually more right than the fans are. And as 2012 has rolled around, Thompson may just be laughing away at what may be his most criticized free agent signing* paying off. We saw the decline of Donald Driver last season, and in 2012 it is evident that it is Driver who is taking on the role of the occasional target on the depth chart.
Now, add in the disappearance of our top receiver with a persistent hamstring injury and you can start making some excuses for why Rodgers had such a slow start to his season.
But James Jones wasn't looking for excuses. He was looking for opportunity, and now in his sixth season, he's taking it. As the roles among the receivers have morphed and adjusted to the absence of last year's starters, Jones has found his niche as, of all things, the closer.
Look no further than his two impossible catches already this season, the game-clincher against the Saints where he blindly caught a ball from around the body of the defender, saving a punt and denying New Orleans one final chance to come back in the final seconds. Being at that game, I can tell you not one person cheered in the stadium when that catch happened, because watching it live, there was no way your brain could possibly conclude he had come up with the ball. It was a slow realization (and a couple replays on the big screen) that ball was caught, and the game was over.
Or, last week's touchdown catch, where he once again lost sight of the ball with a man blocking him, yet knew instinctively where to put his hands to catch it on the other side of the defender's body. These are not easy catches, and shouldn't be taken for granted.
But, most importantly, on a team that has been vilified for its repeated drops of Aaron Rodgers' passes this year, James Jones hasn't a single drop this season. Not.One. He's leading the league in touchdowns, but more importantly, he's becoming the guy that Rodgers is turning to when the going gets tough; a far cry from the sticky end we thought he'd meet.
The best part is that Jones isn't just accomplishing these feats based on his own natural talent. He's applied his mental game and improved his fundamentals. Just ask Edgar Bennett.
“Basically, what you put into it, you get out of it," Bennett said. "You see a guy [Jones] that’s working his butt off. You see a guy that’s committed and doing the little things. It matters to him. And it’s great to see him have that success.”
When you combine that with the work ethic and production of Jordy Nelson, and the "coach's dream" knowledge and locker room presence of Randall Cobb, you get the feeling that the Green Bay Packers will be just fine at wide receiver--even if Greg Jennings leaves via free agency and Donald Driver rides off into the sunset of retirement.
The Packers have three very, very good receivers right now, all with room to grow even further. And none have grown up quite like James Jones, who endured a lot more criticism than Aaron Rodgers has gone through recently. Perhaps, like Rodgers, it was the doubters who motivated him to step up his game and prove them wrong. If that's the case, I'm glad we put that chip on his shoulder.
But make no doubt about it right now: James Jones has proven all of us wrong, and proven Ted Thompson's faith in him justified.
* not exactly a significant event, as he rarely signs free agents anyway
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