GREEN BAY, Wis. — The talented four-man group of receivers that Aaron Rodgers was throwing to earlier this season has quickly dwindled down to just one. While the Green Bay Packers already know that Randall Cobb is out until at least Week 15 with a fractured fibula and pass-catching tight end Jermichael Finley’s football future is uncertain after suffering a neck injury, it doesn’t seem like Rodgers will get James Jones back yet, either.
“If it was the Super Bowl, maybe I’d go,” Jones said Wednesday.
Well, this Sunday’s game isn’t the Super Bowl. It’s Week 8 of the regular season against the 1-5 Minnesota Vikings.
Jones might be lucky that his left knee isn’t going to keep him out any longer than the 2-3 week recovery window that coach Mike McCarthy is expecting it to be.
“When it happened, I thought it was over,” Jones said. “But thanks to God, I’m all right. I really don’t know how long the process is going to be. When you’re dealing with a knee injury, you never know how long it’s going to be, how early you can come back. We’ll see what happens.”
In typical Packers fashion, there’s no sense of panic, even as injuries have piled up to Rodgers’ top playmakers. The next-man-up philosophy will be tested now more than ever, though.
Jarrett Boykin proved that it can work. The second-year receiver who went undrafted in 2012 used his first career start to catch eight passes for 103 yards with one touchdown.
“We knew that was going to happen,” Jones said of Boykin’s production in Green Bay’s win over the Cleveland Browns. “‘Boink’ is a great player. He showed it in training camp, he showed it last year. I told him before the game that, no offense to the guys that were guarding him, but I said, ‘Dude, be ready. You’re going to have a big day.’ And he went out there and made the most of his opportunities like we all have and made plays.”
If Jones is unavailable for the second consecutive game, it’s a big loss for the Packers. Jones led the NFL in touchdown receptions last season and had already recorded a 178-yard game and 127-yard game this season.
Jones is important to Green Bay’s offense, but not having Finley could really change what the Packers are able to do.
“Jermichael Finley, you don’t just replace him, based on the way he was utilized and the production that he gives us as an offense,” McCarthy said.
It will mostly be up to fourth-year tight end Andrew Quarless and first-year tight end Brandon Bostick to try to make up for Finley’s absence.
Quarless has done this once before, stepping into the lineup as a rookie in 2010 after Finley suffered a season-ending knee injury. Quarless had 21 receptions for 238 yards that season, but he was unable to play in 2012 while recovering from a major knee injury. All of that missed time is part of what’s contributed to Quarless only catching seven passes since 2010.
“I’ve definitely grown a lot as a player, and even going through this injury I think that’s definitely helped me to grow as a player,” Quarless said. “I think times are definitely different. I’m not a 21-year-old kid, fresh, wet behind the ears and stuff. I’m a little more vested. I’ve been doing this a little longer so I feel a lot more comfortable.”
Gone are the discussions of Green Bay possibly having three or four 1,000-yard receivers this season. That was a topic brought up by Jones before the season, and for a while, it seemed extremely likely that three of them would reach it. Finley was slightly behind that pace but had a chance to get to 1,000 yards, as well.
Now, it’s all up to Jordy Nelson. As the lone remaining starter from the foursome that once created matchup issues for every NFL team, Nelson becomes Rodgers’ clear-cut No. 1 target.
“I don’t think we’re feeling more pressure,” Nelson said. “Guys are going to step up like they did last week, and that’s the way it’s going to have to be, unfortunately. Guys are going to go out and do their job, that’s all we ask, that’s what I try to tell the young guys in our position. Go out and do what you’re supposed to do.
“The game’s not that difficult; just do your job. If all 11 of us do that, then we’ll be successful.”
Nelson believes that the Packers’ sixth-ranked rushing attack could prevent opposing teams from double-teaming him too often. But not every team has a cornerback like the Browns do with Joe Haden, who matched Nelson the entire game last weekend and didn’t need much help. Until Boykin can produce results on a consistent basis like he did against Cleveland, Nelson will become the top priority for most defenses.
Rodgers has always preached that he’ll throw it to the open receiver, regardless of whether it’s someone with Nelson’s reputation or a first-year player like Bostick or recent practice-squad callup Myles White. Rodgers is also cautious about turnovers, though, and doesn’t often force passes into tight windows if the receiver hasn’t created enough space.
Even if Jones misses another game or two as his 2-3 week recovery would suggest, Rodgers thinks the lesser-known members of the group are ready.
“We have high expectations for our guys to step in and play,” Rodgers said. “There’s accountability that goes along with being in this locker room, being ready to play, knowing your assignments and, when you get your chance, making the plays that are there and being mentally sharp.
“I think we have the guys who can step in and play roles for us.”