GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Johnny Jolly insisted he was not trying to send a message with his attire after practice on Monday.
He just likes the shirt.
But there was Jolly, sporting a T-shirt imprinted with the slogan “Green Bay Packers 2009 Strength and Conditioning.”
The way Jolly has played of late, it looks like 2009.
It has been 3½ years since Jolly last appeared in an NFL regular-season or playoff game but in the last week, he has begun to show some of his old form. Finally back in the league after battling a drug addiction, serving jail time and a three-year ban from the NFL, the 30-year-old defensive tackle has put himself in position to complete an improbable comeback and make the roster.
He backed up Saturday’s performance against the St. Louis Rams -- when his tipped pass led to an interception by Jarrett Bush and later intercepted one on his own -- with another impressive practice on Monday by batting down a pair of passes at the line of scrimmage.
In 2009, when Jolly was seemingly in the early stages of a promising career, he swatted away 11 passes, the most by any NFL defensive linemen that season and the most by a Packers’ defensive lineman since the team began recording pass breakups in 1980.
Last season, the Packers’ defensive linemen combined for just four pass breakups.
“For me, it’s just a reaction thing,” Jolly said. “Getting push and at the same time, I’m watching the quarterback. When he gets ready to release, I just stick my hands up and put them in the passing lane.”
Added Jolly with a smile: “I played a little basketball in my time, too. I kind of blocked a couple of shots here and there.”
In some ways, it hasn’t take him long to regain that skill. He didn’t return to the Packers until early June, which meant he missed most of the offseason program while still tying up some legal loose ends in Houston, where he was arrested multiple times for possession of codeine.
Yet in reality, he’s been trying to get back to this point ever since NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him indefinitely shortly before training camp opened in 2010.
“It all comes back to you,” Jolly said after Monday’s practice. “It’s just a matter of how much you grind to get back to that point. I’m working hard and my coaches are staying on me to get back to that point. I’m just taking advantage of my opportunity, and I’m just going to keep pushing forward.”
Throughout training camp, no one gets louder cheers from the crowds at Ray Nitschke Field than Jolly. And in the locker room, no one has more support from his teammates than Jolly. After Jolly’s interception at St. Louis, the reaction on the Packers’ sideline said it all.
“I know what I was doing; I was jumping up and down, running down the sideline, and I know James Jones was doing the same thing,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said after the game. “There were probably 25 guys on the field congratulating him.”
No one has handed Jolly a roster spot yet, but as McCarthy said after the Rams’ game, “You’re starting to see the player that was here a few years back.”
Which takes us back to the T-shirt. When asked about it on Monday, Jolly sat back in his locker and said: “I had this the whole time; I kept a couple of them.”
And then, just when it seemed like he might become emotional about it and his journey through prison, rehabilitation and his return to the NFL, Jolly looked up and said: “We don’t have these around the facility anymore. I just like wearing it around. It’s comfortable.”