Jones ea­ger to shed in­jury-prone tag

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Sports - Ryan Wood

GREEN BAY – Aaron Jones is liv­ing Bill Mur­ray’s ver­sion of Ground­hog Day. Each week, he faces the same ques­tion, and his an­swer never changes.

It seems strange that a run­ning back so dy­namic with the foot­ball, so ca­pa­ble of chew­ing up home-run yardage and touch­downs, wouldn’t want more touches. Wouldn’t de­mand more touches. But that is not Jones’ way.

In two years, Jones has never got­ten 20 car­ries in a game. He has reached 18 car­ries just once, and that was last sea­son. The NFL’s top 10 rush­ing lead­ers are av­er­ag­ing 16.25 car­ries per game this sea­son. Jones is av­er­ag­ing 11.2.

With Mike McCarthy fired, now would seem the per­fect time to change tune, to lever­age the coach­ing change, to send a bold state­ment through the press.

“Nope,” Jones said.

Still, with the Pack­ers out­side play­off con­tention, their fi­nal four games give them a chance to see what kind of work­load their top run­ning back can carry. They haven’t stretched Jones this sea­son, but if there was ever a time to find out whether Jones could han­dle a 20carry work­load, it would be now. Es­pe­cially with in­terim head coach Joe Philbin, a long­time, ground-and-pound of­fen­sive line coach, as­sum­ing McCarthy’s play-call­ing du­ties. Jones won’t ask for a fea­tured role pub­licly, but the se­cond-year tail­back said fin­ish­ing these fi­nal four games is im­por­tant to him.

There are two things he has heard from fans con­stantly this sea­son: that he needs more car­ries, and that maybe his body can’t han­dle it.

“I feel like that’s some­thing I’m phys­i­cally able to do,” Jones said of 20 car­ries. “I feel good on Mon­days, Tues­days. Af­ter the game, I might be a lit­tle sore, but I feel good and like, ‘Hey, I could’ve taken a cou­ple more car­ries.’ ”

There, fi­nally, is the faintest sign of a chip on his shoul­der. If stats don’t mat­ter, if Jones can live with­out be­ing a house­hold name in the NFL, the in­juryprone moniker grates at him.

His car­ries started to in­crease last sea­son. Then Jones tore an MCL when his knee twisted awk­wardly while he was be­ing tack­led at Chicago. He missed two weeks. Came back against Tampa Bay, and got only 11 car­ries to­tal in the fi­nal four games of the sea­son.

Jones said he badly wants to fin­ish this sea­son healthy. If his car­ries in­crease to a level that qual­i­fies as a work­horse run­ning back in the process, even bet­ter. Philbin is of­fer­ing no guar­an­tees.

“We’re go­ing to do what­ever’s best to win that par­tic­u­lar game,” Philbin said. “If that means throw­ing the ball 50 times, we’ll throw it 50 times. If that means run­ning Aaron Jones 30 times, we’re go­ing to do that. We’re go­ing to do what­ever we have to, to win the game. Cer­tainly, get­ting him the foot­ball in his hands has been a fo­cal point of ours, and will con­tinue to be, but it’s hard to pre­dict how games shake out and un­fold.

“The mind­set isn’t nec­es­sar­ily, ‘Let’s make sure Aaron Jones gets X amount so we can eval­u­ate him for the fu­ture.’ It’s got to be, ‘He’s one of our bet­ter play­ers, he makes things hap­pen with the ball in his hands, let’s get him the ball.’ ”

Jones, who is se­cond in the NFL with 5.7 yards per carry, has sta­tis­ti­cal mile­stones to play for in the sea­son’s fi­nal month. With 642 yards, he has a le­git­i­mate chance at reach­ing 1,000. He could also reach 10 rush­ing touch­downs.

Per­haps the big­gest bar­rier is a lack of car­ries. Among the NFL’s top 20 rush­ers, and among the 12 run­ning backs with at least seven touch­downs, Jones has the fewest rush at­tempts this sea­son.

Pri­vately, Jones al­lowed, he has won­dered what more car­ries could mean. “I think that goes through any ath­lete’s mind,” he said. If Jones av­er­aged the same num­ber of car­ries as the league’s top 10 tail­backs, he would rank fifth in rush­ing in­stead of 20th, even af­ter miss­ing the sea­son’s first two games be­cause of a mar­i­juana sus­pen­sion.

The ques­tion, though, is whether those five ad­di­tional car­ries would break down Jones’ body.

“I know that’s not me,” Jones said of the in­jury-prone la­bel. “I wouldn’t say in­jury prone is be­ing when you get tack­led a cer­tain way, you get in­jured from that. I feel like in­jury prone is if you go out there and step the wrong way, you get in­jured. If you go back, my in­juries have been con­tact in­juries. They haven’t been non­con­tact.

“So I feel like when peo­ple say, ‘He’s in­jury prone,’ I dis­agree.”

Jones missed a cou­ple of weeks in train­ing camp with a ham­string in­jury, but he said that was a byprod­uct of be­ing too big. Try­ing to pack on mus­cle for ex­tra pad­ding, Jones re­ported to camp weigh­ing 213 pounds, the heav­i­est he has been. Look­ing back, Jones be­lieves, his mus­cles lacked the elas­tic­ity needed for the sud­den bursts at his po­si­tion.

Oth­er­wise, Jones has shown this sea­son he can be durable on a lighter work­load. Still to be seen is whether he can han­dle the 18 to 20 car­ries asked from many of the NFL’s top run­ning backs. Per­haps he’ll get a chance to show that in the fi­nal four games.

“I def­i­nitely think for any ath­lete who’s missed a cou­ple games last year, fin­ish­ing the sea­son strong and putting an end to all of that, ‘Oh, he’s in­jury prone,’ and all this and all that, that def­i­nitely will help,” Jones said.

MARK HOFF­MAN / MIL­WAU­KEE JOUR­NAL SEN­TINEL

Pack­ers run­ning back Aaron Jones has never had 20 car­ries in a game and is av­er­ag­ing 11.2 this sea­son.

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