With quiet consistency, Jones becoming go-to guy
James Jones didn't need to watch the film to know his performance in last weekend's game against the Chicago Bears was his best yet.
And it had nothing to do with those three touchdown catches, which gave the Green Bay Packers wide receiver an NFL-best 12 for the year.
"I felt like I played my most complete game and it was strictly because I blocked well. I think the DB may have touched the running back one time when I was in the game blocking. So I felt good about that," Jones said.
"I didn't care about the touchdowns and all that. I felt good about the way I blocked," he added. "Those guys block for us every play to get open. So when we get the opportunity to block for them, I feel like that's how you make yourself a complete receiver."
Jones has become more than a complete receiver this year. With Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson sidelined by injuries, he's become a bedrock of Green Bay's high-powered offense. His numbers — with a career-high 51 receptions, he's averaging close to a touchdown every four catches — and "How did he do that?" athleticism are worthy of No. 1 status, but he's often overlooked because of his quiet consistency.
Well, overlooked by some.
"I've always had confidence in James," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "I've been vocal about it and believed in him. I thought that, given the opportunity, he could have this type of season. He just needed some more looks his way."
Jones showed plenty of big-play potential in his first five seasons in Green Bay. His 29 touchdowns since 2009 are the most by any Packer, and he's the first Green Bay receiver since Antonio Freeman (1996-2001) to have four straight seasons with five or more TD catches.
In that 48-21 rout of Atlanta in the 2010 NFC divisional matchup that established the Packers as Super Bowl favorites, it was Jones who gave Green Bay the lead for good, snatching the ball over the outstretched hands of Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes in the end zone. Green Bay never trailed again as it went on to win its 13th Super Bowl title.
But it can be hard for a young receiver to stand out in Green Bay, where Rodgers has about a half-dozen options — all of them impressive. In addition to Jennings and Nelson, there's Donald Driver, big tight end Jermichael Finley and, now, Randall Cobb.
Jones didn't always help himself, either. According to STATS, he had four or more drops in each of the last three seasons.
"I dropped some balls and let some chances and opportunities go in the past," Jones acknowledged.
That was not going to be the case this year, however.
Jones arrived for offseason workouts determined not to squander any opportunity. He may not have control over how many times he gets the ball — every Green Bay receiver knows Rodgers goes for the open guy rather than targeting someone in particular — but he could control what happened when it came his way.
"I just wanted to come in this year and be consistent," Jones said. "No matter how many catches I got, how many touches I got, how many opportunities I got, just know I did make the most of my chances."
His attitude did not go unnoticed.
"He came in, was extremely focused. He was ready to go play," receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. "It was more about the action than the talking about it. ... Every day we went out on that practice field, he made the most of his opportunities. It was all about, 'How can I get better today?' And he's stayed in that frame of mind throughout the season so far."
Jones has had eight games with four or more receptions — big numbers in Green Bay's multi-option offense. He matched a Packers record with three straight two-TD games, against New Orleans, Indianapolis and Houston.
Though most of his touchdowns have been of the short-yardage variety — his longest was 32 yards — his receptions have hardly been gimmes. Far from it. He reached around Texans defensive back Kareem Jackson for a one-handed grab in Houston. Charles Tillman is probably still wondering how Jones got his hands on the ball for his third score last weekend.
And his TD catch against Arizona simply has to be seen to be believed. (Seriously. Go Google it.)
"He's just done a really good job of making the most of his opportunities," Rodgers said. "If you look back at some of the catches — I mean he's had a couple where he basically just took the ball away from the defender. ... Those 50-50 jump balls, he's brought down almost every single one of them."
He's brought down almost everything he's touched, actually. According to STATS, Jones has only two drops this year.
That consistency has helped the Packers weather the injuries to Jennings and Nelson — and given a glimpse of what Green Bay's offense might look like next year. Jennings will be a free agent after the season and does not expect to be brought back, but he said Jones is more than ready to take his place as the Packers' top receiver.
"Absolutely," Jennings said. "For the first time - we've seen it, but everyone is starting to see it on a consistent basis, like James Jones can be that guy."
Not that Jones cares much about numbers, his own or the ones people like to hang on receivers.
"I consider myself as a receiver trying to get better. Working on my craft every day, trying to better myself. And, like I said, just make the most of my chances," Jones said when asked if he considers himself a No. 1. "No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4 — the main thing is you're making the most of your chances. If you keep making big plays when you get a chance, some people will label you as the No. 1 receiver.
"But I'm just trying to get better."
And the Packers have no doubt he will.
That pride Jones took in his run blocking last weekend? It just shows the attention he's putting into every detail of his game. If he keeps that up, there's no telling what he can do.
"The thing about James, he hasn't hit his ceiling," Bennett said. "He can continue to get better, and he'll be one of the guys that people are talking about in the years to come as one of the best receivers in the game."
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