Jones remains heart and soul of running game

Jacob Westendorf
Green & Gold Express

Running backs — an army of one.

When Aaron Rodgers was traded to the New York Jets in April 2023, it signaled a new era in the Green Bay Packers franchise.

One thing was obvious. The offense was not going to look the same. That’s natural. Rodgers is going into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot when he is eligible.

By the same measure, Jordan Love was going to be a first-time starter.

Sure, he was not a rookie and had some advantages by sitting behind Rodgers for the last three seasons. That being said, there is no substitute for live reps against an NFL defense that has spent an entire week scheming up ways to beat you.

The good news for the Packers is they had someone to rely on that had been criminally underused through the early portion of his career.

Aaron Jones was set to step into the spotlight as the face of the franchise as Love attempted to acclimate himself.

Jones brought with him a running mate that could strike fear into opposing defenders due to his size and speed combination, A.J. Dillon.

Dillon was coming off a disappointing 2022 campaign but felt primed to have a big year as the offense became even more reliant upon its run game to help ease the transition of a new quarterback.

Behind those two, was the training camp darling, Emanuel Wilson.

Wilson, an undrafted free agent won the job over the incumbent Patrick Taylor and seventh-round pick Lew Nichols, who would later be released with an injury settlement.

The key cog in the entire machine, however, was Jones.

Jones has averaged more than five yards- per carry through his career and has been one of the best players in all of football at his position.

He started the season with a bang. While all eyes were on Love making his first career start at Soldier Field, it was Jones who stole the show.

He scored a touchdown on the ground and in the air while also making another big play in the passing game before exiting with a hamstring injury that would sideline him for the next two games.

Jones’ season, unfortunately, was a bit of a roller coaster from there. Once Jones returned from the hamstring injury, his usage was limited.

By the same measure, the Packers’ offense was limited in Jones’ absence.

They rarely scored in the first half and only scored more than 20 points once between the first week and the end of October.

The offense struggled mightily.

Dillon, who was supposed to be the second part of a lethal one-two punch, was stuck in neutral.

Neither Dillon, nor the rest of Green Bay’s ground game, was able to find its footing in Jones’ absence, or partial absence.

It felt like the early days of Rodgers where he would be the leading rusher of the team more often than not.

Love was the team’s leading rusher for two games in the early portion of the season and not because he was able to break big runs to skew his total.

The Packers’ rushing attack, by extension, was putrid.

Things looked to be getting worse when Jones was back but looked to have suffered a serious knee injury.

November 19 looked like it might have been Jones’ last game of the season, and perhaps his last in Green Bay depending on the severity.

Jones got rolled up on, and the broadcast showed tears in his eyes as he was rolled away on a cart.

“They went to go tackle me on the right, like my right foot,” Jones explained after the game. “They missed, and I picked it up and it was laying on the defender’s helmet, and my left leg was in the ground and somebody had me and my cleats were in the ground. I think it was Kenneth Murray comes down and I’m already kind of low and I just absorbed all of that, that was in the ground.

“Knee, hip and groin – felt it all. It felt awful.”

Fortunately for Jones, he did not tear his ACL, but he would still miss the next three games.

When he returned, he gave a glimpse of things to come.

Jones touched the ball eight times and gained 48 yards on the Packers’ first possession of a 34-20 loss to Tampa Bay.

The drive was not perfect. In fact, it ended with a failed fourth down attempt when Love sailed a pass intended for rookie Jayden Reed.

It was a sign, however, that Jones was healthy and just how much he meant to Green Bay’s offense.

The Packers would take on the Carolina Panthers the following week with a simple message.

They had to win the rest of their games, or they’d have no chance of making the playoffs.

Jones took that situation to heart.

He rolled all over the Carolina Panthers for more than 120 yards and in the process became the team’s first 100-yard rusher on the season.

It’s almost incredible that a team that was supposed to rely on its ground game did not have a 100-yard rusher until Christmas Eve, but that was part of the story of the Packers’ season.

Jones would top the century mark in each of the Packers’ final five games, including the postseason.

In his final game of the season, he became the first 100-yard rusher against the San Francisco 49ers in 51 games.

His finest moment of the season, however, came in Green Bay’s 48-32 win over the Dallas Cowboys.

Jones is from Texas and grew up a Cowboys fan. He’s always played well when he’s returned to his home state, including a four-touchdown explosion in September 2019.

Jones ran for more than 100 yards against Dallas and set the tone early with a touchdown run to put an exclamation point on an opening drive that took nearly eight minutes off the clock.

Jones is the heart and soul of this team, even at his age. Running backs allegedly do not matter, but Jones certainly does to this Packers offense. They need to do whatever they can to keep him around in 2024 and beyond.