TAMPA — He sat in the middle of the Bucs’ locker room at a card table, the poker face rarely changing. But when he got up to move toward a pack of cameras for an interview session, his new teammates began to chant.
“Jul-io! Jul-io! Jul-io!”
The deal was up. Quintorris “Julio” Jones broke into a smile.
“I love it. They’re behind me, and they’ve got my back,” Jones said of his new teammates. “I know I can go to war with them, so it’s good. The team camaraderie is amazing here. They welcomed me with open arms.”
Jones is 33. Injuries have been the story the past two seasons, preventing him from playing in 14 games in Atlanta and Tennessee.
But entering Sunday’s opener at Dallas, the NFL should be warned that the Jones that arrived with the Bucs at the start of training camp has looked and played like the seven-time Pro Bowl receiver who had been the best in the league almost from the day the Falcons traded five draft picks to the Cleveland Browns to move up in the first round to get the Alabama star in 2011.
How does Jones feel physically compared to the last two season openers?
“Night and day,” he said. “I feel amazing. I don’t have anything that is lingering, anything that is holding me back, anything that I am unsure about. I am ready to go.”
Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich saw it the first few days of camp, when Jones was running past and leaping over defenders to catch nearly everything quarterback Tom Brady threw his direction.
The word is that Brady has been even more reinvigorated by the arrival of Jones, adding to a cache of receivers that already included Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Russell Gage, Scotty Miller, Breshad Perriman and Jaelon Darden.
“(Brady and Jones) are veteran guys that have played a lot of football,” Leftwich said. “Both of those guys are going to have (Hall of Fame) gold jackets. It took these guys two, three days to get acclimated when they were here.”
How Jones will fit into the Bucs’ offense remains to be seen. Godwin still is recovering from two torn knee ligaments he suffered in a December loss to the Saints. He will be a game-time decision. Gage, a teammate of Jones’ with the Falcons, missed time in the preseason with a hamstring injury but is expected to play.
The Bucs need to make up the 55 catches for 802 yards and six touchdowns lost with the retirement of tight end Rob Gronkowski. Jones and Gage, who had 50 receptions over his final eight games with the Falcons last season, could do that and more.
“Anytime you go out onto the grass, you want to have as many players as possible,” Leftwich said. “Obviously, Julio gives us match-up issues, but we’re just working right now. We love what we’ve got here, we love the group, I love the mentality of this group.”
After Jones arrived, conventional wisdom suggested the Bucs might keep Jones on a pitch count, restricting much of his use to third down or in the red zone. But after watching him perform in training camp, conventional wisdom was asked to take a hike.
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“We’re going to play,” Leftwich said. “Won’t know what that will really consist of, but we’re going out ready to play.”
Despite his age and struggles to stay on the field the past two seasons, to speak ill of Jones is to invite humiliation.
He still is the NFL’s career leader with 91.9 receiving yards per game. That includes last season in Tennessee, when he averaged only 43.4.
“Obviously, he’s a great player, but I think he’s a great teammate, too,” Brady said. “You just sense that he’s here for all the right reasons. He’s been really fun to get to know. Obviously, I’ve watched him for a long time, obviously admired his ability to play and play at a high level. I’ve been on the other sideline, watching him be a dynamic player. It’s always enjoyable to get to know different guys, and he’s one of the great players in the league.”
Ironically, it was Brady who deprived Jones of a championship ring and the attention he deserved for a leaping, acrobatic, toe-tapping sideline grab of a pass that could have clinched a victory for the Falcons in Super Bowl 51.
But Brady authored the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, rallying the Patriots from a 28-3 deficit.
Jones had several options as a free agent, including the Colts and Saints. He chose to join Brady in Tampa Bay and hasn’t been disappointed, even with the quarterback’s 11-day hiatus for “personal reasons.”
“Just the way he attacks the game each and every day is special,” Jones said. “Like practice. Each and every day, the way he attacks practice. In meetings, he is very vocal, and I love that because it’s not like, ‘OK, I want these guys to do this, but I’m not going to really say it.’ He always over-communicates about things.”
If Jones or one of his teammates has a question about a route, he said, Brady will take the time to walk them through it and demonstrate how he wants it run.
“I think that’s big, because at the end of the day, we all have to be on the same page,” Jones said. … I just feel like the communication side of it is very big, and it’s key to a lot of success.”
If Jones can remain healthy, he will hear his name chanted a lot this season, and the Bucs will have hit the jackpot.
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