What Jones did in Sunday’s 31-23 victory against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium gave us the most conclusive evidence yet that the Falcons made the right choice back in April.
In a move that was daring but controversial, the Falcons traded up 21 spots to take the wide receiver from the University of Alabama. The explanation at the time was the Falcons thought Jones could make the Falcons’ offense much more explosive.
Jones and the Atlanta offense exploded in the second half Sunday, after trailing 23-7 at halftime. Jones caught a 17-yard touchdown pass with 12 minutes, 42 seconds left in the fourth quarter to put the Falcons ahead 24-23, their first lead since since the first quarter.
He followed that with a 75-yard touchdown catch with 4:17 remaining and finished with three catches for 104 yards.
“I think Julio showed the skill set we all envisioned,’’ Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
We had seen that skill set in bits and pieces from the start of the season. Jones had three 100-yard receiving games before Sunday. But he also missed some time with a hamstring injury and was coming off his worst game. That was in a loss to Houston last week, in which Jones was responsible for two costly penalties and had two drops, including one in the end zone on the game’s final play.
Jones’ first half against the Panthers wasn’t great either, but then again, the same thing can be said about all of the Falcons. Jones had at least one first-half drop as the Falcons (8-5) fell behind the Panthers (4-9), who might have played their best half of football of the season in the first two quarters.
“We played with resiliency and character,’’ Smith said.
Smith was talking about his entire team, and that’s very accurate. The comeback was the fourth-biggest in franchise history. But there might not have been a player who showed more resiliency and character than Jones.
Smith said the rookie had a "bounce-back game'' and that says a lot about Jones. We’ve seen rookies go into funks after having games like the one Jones did in Houston. His every move has been under scrutiny since the day the Falcons drafted him. But Jones was under more scrutiny than ever after what happened in Houston, and Sunday’s first half was clearing the way for even more criticism.
Had the Falcons not rallied, their playoff chances would have taken a hit. Had Jones not rallied, the skeptics would have been lighting up general manager Thomas Dimitroff for making the huge trade on draft day.
But Jones and the Falcons did rally. The Falcons now have secured their fourth straight non-losing season, and this was a team that never had back-to-back winning seasons until 2009. Jones rallied and was perhaps the biggest hero of the game, although Carolina’s second-half defense and two second-half interceptions by Cam Newton definitely played a big role.
Jones said he didn’t even notice the scrutiny after the Houston game, and he wasn’t about to let himself get down after a tough first half against the Panthers.
“I can only control what happens on the field,’’ Jones said. “I’m here for my teammates. Everything else is outside of the organization. I really don’t hear it or pay attention to it. I try to help my teammates.’’
Jones helped his teammates tremendously, and also got an assist from a fellow rookie. That was running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who caught a 31-yard touchdown pass with 8:55 left in the third quarter to cut Carolina’s lead to 23-17.
Suddenly, the Falcons are getting those explosive plays they talked so much about in the offseason, but weren’t showing in the early part of the season.
“We’ve certainly made strides in that department,’’ quarterback Matt Ryan said. “We’ve made plays that we wanted to make. I think the addition of those two rookies has certainly helped in that respect.’’
Ryan has been a master of the fourth-quarter comeback, but now he’s getting even more dependable weapons to work with. Sunday was the 14th fourth-quarter comeback (16th if you count overtime games that he's won after trailing in the fourth quarter) of Ryan’s career, and he finished the day completing 22 of 38 passes for 320 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
We’ve known for a long time that Ryan is capable of bouncing back. But we found out Sunday that Jones has that same ability.
“I think it’s extremely impressive,’’ Ryan said. “If you look at the day and the two weeks he’s had, he’s made some huge plays for us and he’s made some plays where I’m sure he would have liked to have done better. That’s him maturing and understanding what the NFL is all about. There are going to be times when you don’t make the plays you want to make, and it’s all about how you respond to those types of situations. He did a great job for us.’’
That’s impressive for a rookie or really any player.
“But that doesn’t surprise me,’’ Ryan said. “That’s been his deal the entire year. He’s worked really hard. He’s been into it and done everything you could ask for from a rookie.’’
What Jones did on his second touchdown was beyond what you’d expect from any rookie. He blew by Carolina defensive back Darius Butler and outraced him to the end zone to put the game away.
Jones said his big day came because the coaches never lost faith in him.
“Matt had confidence in me,’’ Jones said. “The coaches kept calling plays for me. They kept giving me the ball and that gave me the opportunity to bounce back and go out there and make plays for the team.’’
And Jones never lost faith in himself.
What it comes down to is that Jones firmly showed why he was the Chosen One for the Falcons on draft day.