Over the next three contests, he had caught just five passes, and he drew the ire of his position coach two weeks ago vs. Miami when he didn’t even try to break up a sideline pass that was easily intercepted right in front of him by Dolphins cornerback Jason Allen.
That led to reduced snaps and a zero in the reception column that day, only the second time in a string of 19 games he was shut out.
But Jones earned some measure of redemption this past Sunday against the Vikings, coming out with a dominant first quarter to help jump-start the offense to two early touchdowns. With fellow receiver Donald Driver less than 100 percent with a quadriceps injury and tight end Jermichael Finley of course out for the season, the offense needed a big-play threat to complement Greg Jennings, and Jones came through with a four-reception, 107-yard game.
“It was good to see,” receivers coach Jimmy Robinson said. “It certainly came at a good time against an excellent division opponent. I was pleased with the job James did and hopefully we can build on that.”
Robinson added that he hadn’t heard Jones say anything specifically about trying to redeem himself after the miscues against the Bears and Dolphins, but it’s only natural to feel that way in some respect.
The fumble in Chicago marred an otherwise productive five-reception game and it set up the Bears’ game-winning field goal in the closing moments. And all the interception against Miami did was remind fans of the previous mistake.
“I think anybody that gets criticism from a coach, from the media, whoever it might be, they know in their own heart when they haven’t played as well as they’d like to and as well as we hope they will,” Robinson said. “Everybody has great pride in their performance. Coaches are the same as players. If your group doesn’t play well, you take that pretty personally, and hopefully the players do that the same way.
“I’m quite sure James wanted to play well, and he came out and had a nice game.”
It started right from the get-go, as Jones caught a 13-yard pass on third-and-2 on the Packers’ opening drive, converting the offense’s first third down and taking the ball to the Minnesota 12-yard line. Unfortunately, quarterback Aaron Rodgers was intercepted on the next play.
But Jones came right back on the Packers’ next drive, taking a quick inside slant and then cutting back to the outside and down the sideline for a season-long 45-yard gain down to the 1. It was his longest reception since a 74-yard touchdown at Tampa Bay in Week 9 last year, and it set up a TD run by Brandon Jackson to give the Packers the lead.
Then just before the first quarter ended, Jones started the Packers’ third drive by running a go route down the right sideline and making a nice fingertip grab for a 32-yard pickup. Four plays later, the Packers were in the end zone again for a 14-7 advantage, and Jones had 90 of the offense’s 198 yards in the opening period.
“James made a couple real nice plays,” Rodgers said after the game. “The slant he had, the catch-and-run is what he does best. I’m happy for J.J. I think tonight was big for his confidence. He obviously was disappointed about the last couple weeks and maybe his lack of reps at times, but he definitely made some real big catches for us tonight. It’s great for his confidence and for mine in him as well.”
Jones’ final reception of the night of the night was a valuable one, too. It came in the third quarter on third-and-5 from the Minnesota 36 after linebacker A.J. Hawk’s interception. The 17-yard grab over the middle gave the Packers a first down in the red zone, leading to a Jennings TD, and it put Jones over 100 yards for the first time since that Tampa game last season.
“His actions on the field Sunday reflect a guy that certainly was prepared and ready to play and wanted to make an impact, and he was able to do all of that,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “Hopefully we can get that kind of effort out of him on a consistent basis.”
And therein lies the rub with Jones. While it’s difficult to stay highly productive on a regular basis in an offense that features so many quality skill players – just ask Jennings, who had a streak of three games with two receptions each earlier this season, before catching six passes each of the last two contests – it’s making standout mistakes that can hold a player back and lead to such up-and-down evaluations.
But Jones has always shown the ability to bounce back, dating back to his rookie season in 2007. In his fifth NFL game, in prime time against Chicago at Lambeau Field, Jones fumbled twice after catching slants over the middle with the Packers in scoring territory.
He didn’t have any catches the following week and then made what still ranks as probably the biggest play of his career, hauling in a 79-yard TD pass on a Monday night in Denver. He rebounded in a big way.
It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, though. While it’s important for a player to be able to put the rough moments behind him, any player – plus certainly coaches and fans – would prefer a consistent, smoother ride.
Jones was nagged by injuries throughout 2008, and he’s never ranked higher than the No. 3 receiver in the offense behind Jennings and Driver, so it’s not entirely by coincidence that Jones’ four career 100-yard games have come one at a time in each of his four seasons.
But that’s certainly a pattern Jones would like to break. Perhaps this last outing will lead to the opportunities to make that happen, producing the consistency that for various reasons has eluded him to this point in his career.
“I think we need to see it out of everybody,” Robinson said. “James isn’t the only one that hasn’t been as consistent as he’d like to be and as I’d like him to be. You’re always striving for that with everybody.
“When you have a nice game like that, you want to stack success, like you hear Mike (McCarthy) talk about a lot. We need to stack a win on top of a win, and we need to stack success individually, a winning performance with another winning performance.”