In preseason, Aaron Rodgers spends most of each game on the sideline, serving as a de facto assistant coach, cheerleader and observer.
So as the quarterback watched the second half of the Green Bay Packers’ 19-7 victory over the St. Louis Rams on Saturday night, he took the temperature of the team (“more life on the sideline” compared to the exhibition-opening loss to Arizona), assessed the offense (“we actually scored some points tonight”) and marveled at the guys on the other side of the ball (“the defense was playing great”).
But there was one event – and the jubilation that ensued – that made the strongest impression.
“One moment that sticks out more than any tonight was Johnny Jolly having an interception,” Rodgers offered, even though the question he’d been asked had nothing to do with the veteran defensive end. “If you could have a camera on the sideline, I know what I was doing: I was jumping up and down, running down the sideline. And I know (wide receiver) James Jones was doing the same thing. There were probably 25 guys on the field congratulating him.
“That just says a lot about his presence, his personality, the way the guys feel about him, how happy we are to have him back.”
Jolly’s saga is well known. The indefinite suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. The three years he was away from football, including the Super Bowl XLV-winning 2010 season. The six months he served in prison. The longshot odds he was facing when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reinstated him this spring. The Packers’ decision – and it was no slam dunk – to give him another chance.
For the first three weeks of camp, though, the most complimentary thing one could say about Jolly was that he’s been there. That fact in and of itself is an accomplishment, of course, considering where he was not too long ago. In the preseason opener against Arizona, Jolly played 23 snaps on defense and two on special teams without registering a statistic.
But against the Rams on Saturday night, Jolly was more than just there. He made two game-changing plays, and reminded teammates and coaches alike why it was worth taking a flier on a 30-year-old player who hasn’t taken a snap in a game that counted since January 2010.
“I’m not all the way at that point, but I’m pushing to get back at that point, and all I can do is just keep working towards it,” said Jolly, who was arguably the Packers’ best defensive lineman during that 2009 season, when he started all 17 games (including playoffs) and had 75 tackles, one sack, one interception, forced one fumble while recovering two and defended 11 passes. “I’m just pushing to better myself to help better the team, and I’m going to continue to do that during practice and these preseason games.”
Jolly’s first play came at the start of the second half, when he got his big hands up on a Kellen Clemens throw and deflected the ball into the air. It fell into the arms of cornerback Jarrett Bush for an interception, and six plays later Mason Crosby’s third field goal pushed the Packers’ lead to 12-0.
On the ensuing series, the Packers forced a punt but found themselves in what they call “adversity defense” when the ball bounced off rookie Brandon Smith and the Rams recovered at the Green Bay 10-yard line. On third-and-goal from the 5, Clemens forced a throw across the middle that cornerback Loyce Means tipped, and Jolly was there to nab it in the end zone.
“That was obviously a big play to keep them out of the end zone, and it speaks a lot to Johnny Jolly’s case to make our football team,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “When I talk about the team taking a step forward, I think Johnny’s definitely taking a step. You’re starting to see the player that was here a few years back. I was very happy for his individual success.”
Jolly even brought the ball out from a yard deep and tried an Eddie Lacy-style spin move before being tackled.
“He was talking more that he was praying he didn’t get knocked out when he spun because a lot of times when you spin, you lose your vision and lose where you are. He’s saying how he got tackled by one of our players, so we were making a big joke about it,” defensive lineman B.J. Raji said of Jolly’s reaction to the play.
“It’s amazing how no matter how long you’ve been gone – sometimes you lose the technical part of it, but the instincts never go it seems like. That’s the biggest thing I’m impressed with Johnny, I thought it would be a lot of catch back up with the technique, but he’s still very instinctive and seems to have a nose for the ball.”
Jolly still has his work cut out for him. The only sure things for the Packers’ 53-man roster on the defensive line are Raji, Ryan Pickett and first-round pick Datone Jones. Veteran C.J. Wilson seems like a good bet, as does Mike Daniels, but after that, Jolly, rookie fifth-round pick Josh Boyd and ex-practice squad lineman Jordan Miller are in the mix. There’s also the matter of whether Mike Neal will count in the defensive line category or as an outside linebacker.
Meanwhile, Jolly still isn’t in tip-top shape. He’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 325 pounds, but he played at closer to 340 in 2009 and appears slightly heavier right now.
“He’s not that far off,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said last week. “He’ll definitely have a shot to get there. He’s going in the right direction. From the time when he was here in the spring to when we came back the first day of (training camp), he did a great job of putting his weight in a manageable position.”
Asked for his assessment of Jolly’s camp, Trgovac replied, “Johnny is working to get to the level he was at before. His legs, you can see them coming back. He’s got a lot of natural instincts, and I think he’s working to get back to the level he (was) at. Is he there yet? No, but we’ve still got plenty of time.
“We’ll just have to see how much he develops from here until the end of camp, how much further he can take it.”
His teammates are clearly hoping he takes it the distance. And while Rodgers, who criticized the NFL for keeping Jolly away from the structure the team environment would have provided during his suspension, acknowledges that Jolly has to own his past transgressions, they’re not keeping his friends from pulling for him.
“Johnny is a guy who made some mistakes, he made some decisions that hurt himself, and I think he’s a different guy with a different outlook on life (now),” Rodgers said. “He’s been given a second chance, and he wants to make the most of it. As brothers on the team, we’re going to come beside him and help him as much as we can. But there’s nobody I don’t think on this team – me personally and I know I speak for a lot of the guys – who we want to see do well (more) than Johnny.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.