CHICAGO — In a quiet corner of Soldier Field's visitors' locker room, Green Bay Packers receiver James Jones sat next to Aaron Rodgers. They had just beaten the Chicago Bears, overwhelming their secondary in a vintage performance, but Jones couldn't stop thinking about the one play that escaped him.
It was second-and-7 from Chicago's 8-yard line in the second quarter. Out of shotgun, Rodgers slung a pass toward the right corner of the end zone, a place where only his receiver could catch it. Jones turned his body, tapped two feet inbounds, held onto the football. Brilliant.
The only problem was a yellow flag by the line of scrimmage. Left tackle David Bakhtiari's holding penalty wiped out the play, just like it never happened. The Packers settled for a field goal.
"Don't remind him, man," Jones said, nodding toward Rodgers after the Packers' 31-23 win Sunday.
"No," Rodgers said, "that's OK. Remind me."
"I should've had three (touchdowns)," Jones said, finally. "That's the one you lose sleep over, right there."
Jones had plenty of reason to lose sleep over the past five months.
He was cut this spring after one season with the Oakland Raiders. Cut again this month after one training camp with the New York Giants. In one offseason, two teams that failed to make the playoffs last year told Jones he wasn't good enough to help them win.
Which is why Jones' first game of the 2015 season was spectacular, maybe even incredible, even if his Packers teammates said they weren't surprised. Jones caught four passes for 51 yards and two touchdowns. On the first, he leaped over Bears cornerback Alan Ball in the end zone. The second, a simple slant route, gave the Packers a lead they never surrendered.
"The guy is amazing," Packers receiver Randall Cobb said. "Just to see him back, and go out there and make the plays that he did, you're just amazed to know that a guy like that has been cut by two teams in five months."
Oh, Jones hasn't forgotten about the cuts. If his play Sunday seemed inspired, there's good reason. After spending his first seven seasons in Green Bay, the former third-round pick went searching for gold on the West Coast. He signed a three-year, $11.3 million contract with the Raiders in 2014, which became a one-year deal.
Despite a team-high 73 catches for 666 yards and 6 touchdowns, the Raiders unloaded him. Then the Giants cut him. Without receiver Jordy Nelson's season-ending torn ACL, he wouldn't be in Green Bay.
Jones gets the message the NFL sent him the past few months, loud and clear.
"I'm just going to say that I'm playing with a little chip on my shoulder," Jones said Sunday. "I am. If somebody tells you that you can't do something, you're going to want to go out there and prove them wrong. So, I'm playing with a little chip on my shoulder, but it's the first step, and we have a lot of work to do."
Jones wasn't interested in drawing attention to himself inside the visitors' locker room. He dressed quickly, cut his interview short. The 31-year-old veteran knows better than to overreact to a couple of highlights against a Bears secondary ranked 30th in pass defense last season. There will be bigger challenges this fall, starting next week against the vaunted Seattle Seahawks.
But Sunday was a positive step for a receiver who first flew into Green Bay to sign his contract just seven days before kickoff. With the Packers, Jones had the benefit of a familiar environment. It's the same quarterback, the same head coach, the same offense.
"Not a whole lot has changed since he left," Cobb said, "but we did have a few new wrinkles that he just had to pick up on and learn throughout the week. He did a great job with his preparation, to get prepared for those little cues whenever we were able to make them."
The biggest change since Jones' departure was the loss of Nelson. Last season was his breakout year. Nelson caught a career-high 98 passes for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns, earning his first Pro Bowl selection.
Jones can't replace Nelson's production. Except for a handful of receivers across the league — the Calvin Johnsons, Dez Bryants, A.J. Greens — nobody can. But he's a veteran presence on the Packers' receiver depth chart, something they desperately need.
When the Packers made their initial cuts to a 53-man roster, Cobb was the only receiver who had played more than one NFL season. And he's only 25.
Jones, entering his ninth season, has more experience than the Packers' four other receivers combined. It's why Rodgers didn't hesitate showing his trust Sunday. Ball shadowed Jones closely in the end zone on that first touchdown pass, but Rodgers threw the football anyway.
"Reminded me of 2012," Rodgers said, "when James made a number of contested catches on his way to leading the NFL in touchdown receptions. He's back at it. He's got two on the board. I'm really excited about the start there. He's a great guy, great teammate, and we're really fortunate he was available there at the end of the cuts."
Right guard T.J. Lang said there were "rumblings" in the Packers' locker room late in training camp that the Giants might cut Jones. Yes, his former teammates talked about whether the Packers would sign him. After an injury-plagued preseason, the offense needed a boost.
That's what it got Sunday.
Lang, who shared a locker room with Jones for five seasons, said he looked like the same receiver who left Green Bay. It's what he expected when the Packers signed Jones last week, but there were no certainties until he saw Jones leap over Ball and land with a touchdown.
"A guy coming back like that," Lang said, "obviously there's some unknowns. He's been out of the system for a year. Obviously, we didn't watch a whole lot of Oakland Raiders film, so we didn't know what kind of player he was last year, or even Giants preseason film from this year. I think coming out there, catching that touchdown, it kind of erased all the unknowns we might've had about him.
"It's almost like he never left. When you think about it, he missed one year but he comes back and has a game like that with the production he had, the two touchdowns, it's pretty damn impressive."
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