After being drafted sixth overall in the 2011 draft by the Atlanta Falcons, wide receiver Julio Jones enjoyed two years of relatively good health, and the Falcons enjoyed relative success during that same period of time.
Jones played in 13 games during his rookie season, and Atlanta finished with a 10-6 record and lost in the first round of the playoffs. During his second season in 2012, Jones started 15 games and played in all 16. The Falcons went 13-3 and made it to the NFC Championship Game prior to losing to the San Francisco 49ers.
In 2013, Jones played in just five games before breaking his foot against the New York Jets. With the third-year receiver gone for 11 games, the Falcons finished with a 4-12 record and missed the playoffs for just the second time in the Mike Smith-Thomas Dimitroff era. The 2013 season was the first and only time Atlanta had failed to make it into the postseason while Jones was on the roster.
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It may seem as if the Falcons live or die by how much Jones plays, but that’s only part of the story. It’s true that the more Jones plays during any season, the better Atlanta has done. But the 2013 season was lost well before his season was ended with a foot injury.
Not only was Jones Atlanta’s leading receiver after five weeks of play last season, his 41 receptions were more than any receiver in the NFL at that time. His 580 receiving yards were second in the NFL only to New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who had 593.
Yet Atlanta’s record was a paltry 1-4.
The Falcons had many other problems last season in addition to Jones’ season ending.
The offense had trouble moving the ball on the ground. Atlanta finished with the worst rushing offense in the league in 2013, gaining just 77.9 yards per game on the ground. At the point Jones was done for the season, that figure was at 78.4 yards per game.
The presence of Jones had little effect on how well Atlanta ran the football.
Where Jones was missed, obviously, was in the passing attack. With Jones playing, the Falcons averaged 313 yards through the air per game. In the 11 games after Jones was injured, Atlanta’s offense averaged 243.5 passing yards per game.
According to the numbers, Atlanta’s offense was 69.5 yards better per game when Jones was on the field. That’s a hefty sum. But it still wasn’t enough for that 2013 Falcons team to be playoff relevant, much less be considered worthy of a trip to the Super Bowl, which they were close to in 2012.
The Falcons have been inching Jones back into the mix at OTAs, never rushing the receiver back from his injury. He’s mostly been working with Atlanta’s training staff on the side of the practice fields while the rest of the team installed the offensive scheme. But he has been working with quarterback Matt Ryan during side sessions to keep the duo’s rhythm in place.
Matt Ryan said he's thrown some balls to Julio Jones when Jones does his hand drill work.— vaughn mcclure (@vxmcclure23) June 10, 2014
Jones is apparently looking to be back on the field at full strength by Week 1 of the regular season, D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
Nothing major, but you’ve got to start somewhere. We have to get back out there and get going, but I feel pretty good. I feel very confident in everything that I’m going through and with what I’m doing as far as what (trainer) Marty (Lauzon) has going for me. They are not going to put me in (a bad) situation or rush me back or do anything that’s going to hurt me.
When Jones does return to the team at 100 percent, will that instantly push the Falcons back to 2011 levels, a playoff team? What about Atlanta’s 2012 levels, where the team was one step away from a Super Bowl?
The easy answer is no.
Jones could come back to the Falcons, fully healthy, and put up better numbers than he ever has. Unless the Falcons have fixed their offensive line, this offense won’t move like it did in 2011 or 2012. And the team won’t win nearly as many games.
The Falcons need Jones to be healthy if there’s any shot at making the playoffs. But Jones isn’t the only answer. He’s just one superbly talented piece that this team needs to fix what went wrong in 2013.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.