GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Johnny Jolly’s story was probably better than his play.
The Green Bay Packers defensive tackle’s return to the NFL after three years away from the game while serving jail time and a suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy was one of the feel-good stories coming out of training camp.
His impact on the field, however, was minimal, especially as this season progressed.
After a strong early start, which helped the Packers’ run defense climb to as high as No. 3 in the NFL through Week 7, he faded as injuries began to mount. Bothered by a groin injury, Jolly missed the second half of the Week 11 loss to the New York Giants and missed the follow week’s tie against the Minnesota Vikings.
Seemingly rested and refreshed for the stretch run, Jolly finally made the kind of impact the Packers had hoped for when they decided to bring him back after his long layoff. In Sunday’s win over the Atlanta Falcons, Jolly matched his season high with five tackles, including one key stop for a loss in the fourth quarter, batted down a pass and recovered a fumble that set up the go-ahead touchdown.
“Johnny’s attitude, his passion, he just has that personality that people are attracted to,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s always had it. He has a lot of natural leadership ability. He played outstanding [Sunday], probably his best game of the year. But he definitely brings an edge to the D-line and to our football team.”
Jolly’s energy seemed infectious. As he celebrated big play after big play, the Lambeau Field crowd became more involved in the game and his teammates followed suit.
Both Jolly and cornerback Jarrett Bush, who sealed the game with his last-minute interception, danced on the field after securing their takeaways.
“We needed to have fun,” Jolly said. “That’s what we did [Sunday]. We went out there and left everything that we had and made plays and had fun. Everyone was jumping around, and we just had fun. It’s great. It’s a great feeling.”
The 30-year-old Jolly played 32 of the 59 defensive snaps against the Falcons, his highest percentage of the season. The Packers might need to lean heavily on Jolly down the stretch.
“I thought he played one of his best games,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “One of the things I liked is he did a nice job of separating off blocks. He did like you see Johnny do. You saw him bat a pass. You saw him recover the fumble when Mike Neal striped it out of there. He had a couple negative-yardage plays where got in his gap, separated off a block and went and made the play. He played one of his better games.”