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 20-carry 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 on Twitter 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 injury-prone moniker grates at him.
His carries started to increase last season. Then Jones tore his MCL when it 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’s 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.
ANALYSIS: Packers could have 2020 vision
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 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 ever been. Looking back, Jones believes, his muscles lacked the elasticity needed for the sudden stops and 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,” Jones said, “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.”