But he’s always believed that, should anything keep his good buddies out of the starting lineup, he could step in and be the same type of steady contributor they’ve always been, and he may have shown it more demonstrably last Thursday against Indianapolis – even if it was just a preseason game – than he has heading into a new season before.
With Jennings resting due to minor back spasms, Jones took his place as a starter and posted four receptions for 30 yards and a touchdown in one half of play. Not eye-popping numbers by any stretch, but it was the consistent presence he had and the faith quarterback Aaron Rodgers showed in him that told a better story than the statistics.
“I felt pretty good,” Jones said of his performance. “It was good to be able to get a couple more opportunities that I probably wouldn’t have got if Greg was in the game, because I was in his position. I think I took advantage of my opportunities, and that’s all I try to do.
“You never know how many chances you’re going to get or how many opportunities you’re going to get to be able to make some plays, so when you do get the chance, you’ve got to make the most of it.”
Jones was a factor right from the Packers’ opening possession. After three Ryan Grant runs, Rodgers tried to go to Jones on his first pass, but they didn’t connect. On the very next snap, however, Rodgers drew the Colts offsides and took advantage of the free play by going up top to Jones, who drew a 48-yard pass interference penalty on cornerback Kelvin Hayden, setting up a short TD pass to Driver.
As the starters played the rest of the first half, Jones remained a presence. He caught a 9-yard pass on the first play of the offense’s next drive. He added one catch on each of the next two possessions after that as well, covering 7 and 11 yards, respectively. He wasn’t suddenly a go-to guy per se, but making a contribution drive after drive is what a player getting starter’s snaps is supposed to do.
Then Jones capped off a strong first half by catching a 3-yard TD pass to finish the offense’s impressive 2-minute drive. Jones ran a quick stop route just across the goal line, and Rodgers fired it to his back shoulder with some legitimate steam on it. Jones plucked it cleanly out of the air for the TD with just 4 seconds left in the half, rewarding the trust Rodgers showed in him on the offense’s last chance before it would have had to settle for a field goal.
“We practice that every day, so that’s nothing new,” Jones said of the goal-line route. “I hope he believes in me, because I believe in myself and I believe in him that I’m going to make the play. Hopefully we can just continue to get better and I can continue to get balls my way and be able to show myself.”
Jones started to do that in the second half of the 2009 season. Coming off an injury-plagued ’08 – a troublesome knee problem that Jones classifies as the only injury of his career since his Pop Warner days – Jones started slowly last year, catching no more than two passes in any game through the first seven contests.
But beginning with the eighth game, at Tampa Bay, Jones caught three or more passes in five straight games and seven of the last 10 overall, including the playoffs. He also scored four touchdowns over that span, including key fourth-quarter scores at Pittsburgh and in the NFC Wild Card game at Arizona, on third- and fourth-down throws, respectively. He finished the year with 35 catches for 490 yards (14.0 avg.) and six TDs, postseason included.
Jones carried that strong finish into the offseason, when he reunited with his receiving coach from San Jose State, Keith Williams, out in Fresno, Calif. (Williams is now a receivers coach for Fresno State). Jones said the two of them worked extensively on cone, ball and footwork drills, focusing even more on football-specific exercises rather than just conditioning to make sure to stay in shape.
It has helped lead to what Head Coach Mike McCarthy has more than once referred to as Jones’ best offseason and training camp as a pro. Along with Jordy Nelson, who’s also right behind Jennings and Driver on the depth chart, Jones is helping give the coaching staff and Rodgers reason to believe the offense won’t slow down should Jennings or Driver have to miss any time.
“I think he’s done a nice job at just being more consistent,” Rodgers said. “I think he really understands our scheme, and with Donald and Greg not being here every day in the offseason, I think James and Jordy both made the most of that, really taking a lot of reps and just detailing their work, running their routes crisper.
“For James, it’s just a matter of getting him opportunities. He’s always shown us when he gets a chance in the game, he’s going to make plays.”
The question with Jones is whether he’ll make enough so people stop talking about his rookie year (47 catches for 676 yards in 2007) as his best. With the emergence of tight end Jermichael Finley as a major weapon on offense, the numbers are beyond Jones’ control, or anyone’s for that matter.
“It’s tough,” Jones said. “Everybody’s not always going to be satisfied. We understand that as a receiver corps. It’s a thousand weapons on the offensive side.
“Aaron’s great with getting the ball around to other guys. He doesn’t really stare down one dude. It may look like it when he throws it to somebody three times, but he distributes it well.”
That’s why it’s so important for Jones to connect with his quarterback like he did last Thursday, maximizing his chances and continuing to prove that he’s ready to be a No. 1 or 2 receiver if he’s ever called upon to fill that role.
“With Donald and Greg and Jermichael and the explosive offense we’ve got, you never know how many chances you’re going to get,” Jones said. “Even they (don’t). I can come out one game and have nine or 10 catches, so you never know.
“The sky’s the limit, man. We’ve got so many weapons, we’re talented. If we’re able to keep Aaron up on his feet consistently the whole season, I wouldn’t see why we all couldn’t have a big year with the ball going around how it should go around. Everybody should be a part of it and everybody should have a great year. As a team, it’s going to be tough to slow us down.” Additional coverage - Aug. 30