Same James Jones: receiver leaves productive, under-the-radar legacy in Green Bay
James Jones was drafted by the Packers in 2007, a year when the team’s other wide receivers included Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, Ruvell Martin, and, for part of the season, Koren Robinson. This group feels a long way away from the present – certainly more than seven seasons in accelerated football years – for a lot of reasons. One of those reasons and maybe the most transformative example is James Jones, who leaves Green Bay not as the understudy but as the study.
Congrats to 89!! I learned a lot from him in our time– gonna miss him clownin!!!
— Randall Cobb (@rcobb18) March 18, 2014
Jones always picked his spots and often made them hurt. Over his seven years as a Packer, his yards per catch average never dipped below 12. When Jones was getting a career-low 12.3 yards per reception in 2012, he also led the NFL with 14 touchdown catches. After amassing his most receiving yards in a single season in ‘13 (817), playing through injuries and averaging nearly 14 yards per catch, Jones left via free agency for the Oakland Raiders on Monday.
His game was fluid and hard and persistent and without warning. It never fit one easy description. Except that his spots were almost always somehow in the background. Jones joined a team with Driver’s shimmying enthusiasm and Jennings, who was entering his second year in ‘07, which would be a huge season for him, catapulting his career and setting him up as the next receiving star in Green Bay. As Driver’s role ever-so-gradually diminished the Packers were hitting on draft picks to reload at wide receiver, most notably with Jordy Nelson in 2008 and Randall Cobb in 2011. Jones was there through the transitions. He didn’t miss a game from 2009-12, but also struggled with drops in ‘09-’10, with six in each season before cutting down to one in ‘11, two in ‘12, and three last season.
We’d argue he at least matched every drop with some absurdity of a catch. In the 2010 NFC Wild Card game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Jones dropped a likely touchdown that fell into and through his breadbasket right before halftime. The Packers won but that drop lingered in the air like burnt popcorn. Until the next week, when Jones caught a touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons, a falling-backwards grab in no space that somehow found a way to Jones’ hands despite physical evidence all around suggesting it shouldn’t have had a chance. He’d have other drops, but we remember the crazy-stupid catches better because his hands never made sense.
We remember the acrobatic grabs because Jones isn’t the biggest or fastest. He stood out on the field because of his cheese-yellow gloves and cut-off turtlenecks, off the field because of his vast and unpredictable array of headwear and his work in the community with his charity. He was incredible after the catch, zagging around defenders in traffic. He was a step ahead or to the side of the cornerback, carving out just enough of an angle or an edge, a pocket for the football to find him. He’d pluck the ball from behind a defender, jump over them or with disregard for their presence whatsoever. He’d sneak down the sidelines because the corner forgot he could burn deep and catch one in stride, he’d plant himself in the near corner of the end zone and box out and wait. He was a product of the Packers’ intricate passing game and the beneficiary of fantastic offensive teammates at all times, and they were all better with him too.
Outside of Green Bay James Jones rarely got the attention he deserved. He went from playing behind Driver’s ageless greatness and Jennings’ ascendence, then later Nelson’s home run blasts and Cobb’s electrifying slashes through space. Opposing defenses always had other players warranting more concern. So Jones went to work picking his spots and when they remembered him it was too late.
During last year’s training camp, I can’t remember if it was a question about Aaron Rodgers after Jennings babbled about his former quarterback from the decaying, not-greener pastures of Minnesota, or if it was about leadership in general, but Jones said this:
“Leadership, what is that? I’ve been doing the same thing I’ve been doing around here for years now. I lead by example. If there’s something to be said and I feel it’s the time for something to be said I’ll say it, but I’m the same old man. I’m the same guy, same James.”
Jones showed up and worked until drops were no longer a talking point in his game, until he led the league in one of its most signature categories, until he became a mainstay in the locker room, a player that the players of the future looked to as an example. He picked his spots and didn’t seem to care they were usually in the background. We all eventually noticed. We are happy for Jones, that he was rewarded with a deal in Oakland after a free agent period spent unsurprisingly off the radar. Green Bay will probably focus on keeping Nelson and Cobb long-term, and allow Jarrett Boykin to continue his development as a receiver in their system. They’ll probably be more than fine as a passing offense. Still we can’t help but wonder, after seven seasons of doing his part with the Packers, if the absence of James Jones, that same old James, will end up being the part we notice most.