ATLANTA — Two summers ago when the Falcons essentially went the draft-day equivalent of all-in by trading five picks to take wide receiver Julio Jones, there were mixed emotions about the selection.
The Falcons bet the farm — trading two first-round picks, a second rounder and two fourth rounders in a span of two drafts — to take the University of Alabama standout on the premise that he would, indeed, live up to his all-world potential. Sunday’s NFC Championship Game in the Georgia Dome served as one of the many justifications in 2012, as Jones once again decimated an opposing secondary, albeit in a losing effort to the San Francisco 49ers.
Though the Falcons fell to the NFC’s No. 2 seed 28-24 after taking an early 17-0 lead, Jones etched his name in stone on one of football’s biggest stages. He finished with 11 catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns. His yardage ranks 15th most in an NFL playoff game since 1960, and his 11 receptions tied him for 11th with guys like Jerry Rice (1996) and his teammate Roddy White (2009). He also set the franchise playoff record for single-game receiving yards.
Needless to say, he’s more than earned his reputation as a game-changer.
“I thought Julio played great. He stepped up and we knew coming in that we needed guys to step up,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “I thought he fought hard the entire day and he made some unbelievable catches and he was a big reason we were in it right there to the end.”
Jones accounted for the game’s two opening touchdowns, allowing the Falcons to take a commanding lead early in the second quarter and send the home crowd into a frenzy. On his first score, the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder left the 49ers defense in the dust for a wide-open 46-yard touchdown catch. The second came in even more spectacular fashion as Ryan lofted the ball to the back left corner of the end zone and Jones found his way underneath, just keeping both feet in.
And just like that, 17-0.
San Francisco was forced to change its approach after that, a tactic many teams have been forced to take this season versus the Falcons’ passing game.
“They started rolling a lot of coverage to Julio’s side. And then the later it got, they started playing a lot of 2-man after seeing how many plays we were hitting,” Falcons receiver Harry Douglas said of his explosive teammate, who did not speak to the media following the game. “It opened up a lot.”
With the new coverage schemes, Ryan was able to find other receivers as well, spreading his 30 completions to six different receivers, including seven to White and eight to tight end Tony Gonzalez, who acknowledged in the locker room that the loss will, in all likelihood, be his final NFL game. Ryan finished with 396 yards and three touchdowns.
In his second NFL season, Jones finished with 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns, catapulting him into the upper echelon of the league’s receivers. Don’t expect him to go away anytime soon, either. He’s just getting started, according to teammates.
“Julio’s grown tremendously. He’s understanding the game more mentally,” said Douglas, who finished with three catches for 31 yards. “He’s really, really realizing that he’s unstoppable. Can’t no one stop him. And I even told him when he first started (vs. the 49ers), I said, ‘Hey, keep getting it. There’s even more out there to go get.’ He’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen in my life.”
On that April night in 2011, right after he was drafted sixth overall, Jones offered up a premonition. For a guy with “CHOSEN 1” written across his shoulder blades, he did not mince his words.
“They can’t double me. They can’t double Roddy White. You got to pick your poison.”
Eighteen months later, Super Bowl appearance or not, those words carry more weight than ever.