After unexpected season, James Jones hopes to finish career with Packers

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Jordy Nelson was still in the trainers room inside the visitors locker room at Heinz Field, and the Green Bay Packers -- including coach Mike McCarthy -- were already contemplating what to do next.

Dr. Pat McKenzie's preliminary diagnosis of the Pro Bowl wide receiver's right knee injury had been ominous -- a torn anterior cruciate ligament, with an MRI set for the team's return to Green Bay to confirm Nelson's season would be over before it began. McCarthy and others began brainstorming, while the even-more-meaningless-than-usual Aug. 23 preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers was still in progress.

And very quickly, the perfect would-be replacement came to mind: James Jones.

"I'll just say this: I was part of a conversation on the sideline in Pittsburgh, and James' name came up," McCarthy revealed in advance of Sunday's NFC wild-card playoff game at Washington.

One problem: Jones was still on the New York Giants' roster at the time. So with two weeks to go before final cuts, McCarthy and the Packers had to essentially root for Jones to get whacked.

When he did, the Packers had him on the next plane from Newark, New Jersey, to Green Bay -- Jones had to connect through Minneapolis, since Austin Straubel airport isn't exactly a hub -- and poof! Jones was back where he'd spent his first seven NFL seasons before a one-and-done year in Oakland.

Jones' addition wasn't enough to prevent the Packers' offense from its worst season of the McCarthy era. The Packers finished 23rd in total offense, their worst finish since 1991, and tied for 25th in passing offense after never having been outside the top 10 under McCarthy.

But there's no telling how much worse off the Packers' aerial attack would have been without Jones, who finished with 50 receptions for a team-high 890 yards and eight touchdowns.

"I told my wife when I signed here, ‘I just want to have the best year of my career,'" Jones said. "That was my only goal."

Given the circumstances, he might have met that goal. Although the 31-year-old fell short of his career highs in receptions (73, set last year in Oakland) and touchdown catches (an NFL-best 14 with Green Bay in 2012), his receiving yardage and yards per catch (17.8) were career bests.

"When we sat down with the personnel department and watched the tape of him playing with the Giants in preseason and watching the Raiders tape, he looked the same as I remembered him," McCarthy said. "I feel like he's come in and has just picked up like he never left. But I think from the outside, I think people would say he's definitely exceeded expectations."

So much so that the Packers have to seriously consider bringing him back next season, even though Nelson and Randall Cobb, who combined for 189 catches in 2014, figure to be reunited, and they have a host of young receivers (Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis, Ty Montgomery and Jeff Janis) they believe can develop into consistent contributors.

"He's been a great addition to our locker room, and I'd love to see him return," said quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who pushed for the team to re-sign Jones in free agency in 2011 and 2014 as well as after Nelson's injury. "At times, the goal of the defense is to take him out of the game based on coverages and which corner is covering him. He's faced a lot of the top corners on various teams. You saw against Arizona [on Dec. 27], when he started catching some balls, they moved [All-Pro cornerback Patrick] Peterson over there really quickly. He's a big contributor for us. A pro's pro."

Added quarterbacks/wide receivers coach Alex Van Pelt: "He's been a huge part of our success each week. It's a matter of his ability to catch contested balls, which he's outstanding at, and his relationship with Aaron. I think Aaron feels really good, regardless of the route, of how to throw it to JJ. And it shows up week after week. To have that ability in a year where we're struggling in the passing game, to have a guy like that you can go ‘OK, even though JJ's covered here, I know he can make a contested catch,' that's helped."

Jones, who played this season on a one-year veteran-minimum deal, said the Packers told him upon signing him that they viewed him as their No. 3 receiver. Instead, because of his ability to be on the same wavelength as Rodgers, he was the receiver the quarterback trusted most -- while others struggled to gain that trust. Jones said he has gained that by being in constant communication with Rodgers, talking with him in film sessions and in the locker room at the stadium, but also calling and texting him away from work.

"I think the main point is talking to him. ‘What are you thinking this week? Are you thinking over the top? Back shoulder? Some slant routes? Out routes?'" Jones said. "And he'll come to me [and say], ‘When you're on the single-receiver side, what are the routes you like?'

"But at the end of the day with '12,' it's about making a play. No matter what the route is, no matter what he gives you, if you make the play, you're going to build his trust."

Jones said he's focused on making a deep playoff run and isn't worried about where he'll be playing next season; although he'd prefer to return to Green Bay, he believes he has played well enough to merit a spot on someone's roster in 2016. He said his goal has always been to play 12 seasons in the NFL, meaning he has three more to go.

"I feel like I did my job helping this team win some ballgames," Jones said. "I wouldn't mind staying here and finishing my career here. But expectation-wise, that's not what I expected. I kind of felt, ‘You're here on a one-year deal; Jordy comes back next year; they've got a bright young star in Davante, drafted Ty, got Randall,' so my expectation was not to really fight for a contract here. I'd love to finish it out, but at the same time, we'll see.

"I just love playing football, man. I still feel like I've got a lot of football left in me. But we'll see. I've hit free agency twice and gotten the back end of the stick twice. Hopefully this time I get at least the middle."