GREEN BAY – The name thing did not break Aaron Rodgers’ way. When James Jones and his wife Tamika welcomed their first-born son last season, the Green Bay Packers quarterback had a suggestion.
“Aaron Jones,” Rodgers said on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com. “But didn’t work out.”
Maybe it did. For while Uncle Aaron didn’t get the naming rights he’d hoped for – the Joneses opted for the much catchier James Martell Lightning Jones instead – the impact the little man had on his pop has been ever better.
“I’m real proud of James, I really am. I think he’s done a great job, his approach is excellent, the preparation that he puts in, the way he practices now,” said Rodgers, who openly campaigned for the Packers to re-sign Jones before the 2011 season and got what he wanted when the lockout was lifted. “I think he’s matured as a player and person.
“Little James Jr., that’s got to do something for you mentally and where you’re at in life. I think he’s just really has realized what’s important, and being a good dad and being a great player is important to him. He’s done a great job – I can’t talk about the parent part; I haven’t seen a whole lot of that – but I can tell you the player part: He’s really done his part to make us a better football team.”
During a season that has seen both Greg Jennings (eight games) and Jordy Nelson (three games) sidelined by injuries, Jones has played a career-high 887 snaps, the most of any skill position player other than Rodgers. Entering Sunday’s game against Tennessee at Lambeau Field, Jones has caught a career-high 51 passes for 622 yards (just 57 yards shy of his career best, set in 2010) and leads the NFL in touchdown receptions with 12.
As a player who’s always talked about making the most of his limited opportunities in previous seasons, he’s practiced what he’s preached now that more opportunities have come his way.
“Make the most of my chances,” Jones replied Wednesday when asked what his goal was coming into this season. “I felt like I did (in the past), but I dropped some balls and let some chances and opportunities go in the past. I just wanted to come in this year and be consistent. 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.”
And he has. According to ProFootballFocus.com, he’s dropped only three passes this season; according to STATS, he’s only dropped two. ProFootballFocus.com had him for 10 drops in 2009, eight drops in 2010 and six drops last season.
Perhaps that’s why Jones was more interested in talking about the drop he had and the run-blocking he did against Chicago last Sunday than he was about the headline-grabbing, three-touchdown clinic he’d put on.
“James has been so consistent. (To have) 12 touchdowns, and he’s had some remarkable catches, but it makes me feel good when a guy runs off the field after a game in Chicago and says, ‘Hey, make sure you look at that film and see how many times my guy I was blocking made the tackle,’” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday. “I think he’s really completed his game and he’s doing all the little things. He’s had a lot of production obviously catching the ball, scoring touchdowns, but he’s doing a much better job of run blocking and things like that. He’s having an excellent year.”
As a result, even though the Packers are facing a changing of the guard at the wide receiver position, it appears they are in good hands. Franchise all-time leading receiver Donald Driver is poised to retired or continue his career elsewhere; Jennings, who’d gone to back-to-back Pro Bowls before his injury-plagued 2012, is ticketed for unrestricted free agency and isn’t expecting to return, either.
While the emergence of second-year man Randall Cobb has attracted the most attention, Jennings said Jones has shown beyond a doubt that he can handle replacing him.
“Oh definitely, absolutely. I felt like that from Day 1, when he first got here,” said Jennings, who arrived in 2006 as a second-round pick, one year before Jones came in as a third-round pick from San Jose State. “He has what it takes to be that guy. For the first time – we’ve seen it (for a while), but everyone (else) is starting to see it on a consistent basis – that James Jones can be that guy.
“Being here with him for six years now, seeing the up and down level of play – you put it all on a player, but he’s been in a tough situation a lot of time. For him to just fight through and have a chance to finally say, ‘Man, I’m having that breakout year,’ it’s exciting to watch.”
For his part, Jones sees himself simply 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.” Others see more.
While Rodgers did some politicking on Jones’ behalf with the NFC Pro Bowl rosters set to be announced the day after Christmas – “Hopefully he gets the consideration he deserves,” Rodgers said Wednesday – it’s unlikely Jones will be selected. Instead, he’ll have to settle for high praise, and lots of touchdown passes, from his quarterback.
“I've always had confidence in James. I've been vocal about it and believed in him,” Rodgers said Wednesday. “I thought that, given the opportunity, he could have this type of season. He just needed some more looks his way. And I think his best football is still in front of him, too. I think he can have an even bigger year, given more opportunities. (I’m) not sure what the dynamic of the team is going to look like next year, but I’m excited about the prospect of him and I playing together for a while.
“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. He had a couple really nice ones against the (Houston) Texans (on Oct. 14); that last one was incredible. He's just done a great job (on) those 50-50 jump balls. He's brought down almost every single one of them.
“You guys know how I play. I'm going to throw it to the open guy. For whatever reason this year in the red zone, he's been the guy that's been open more. There haven't been a ton of long touchdowns to James. I would say the majority have been in the red zone, the low red zone. He's just done a really good job of making the most of his opportunities.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.