NASHVILLE – Julio’s honeymoon officially is over.
Some might argue it ended Sunday afternoon following the Tennessee Titans’ season-opening thumping at the hands of Arizona, when coach Mike Vrabel noted Julio Jones -- his seven-time Pro Bowl receiver -- dropped some contested passes.
If there was any doubt remaining as to whether Jones was above criticism, Vrabel emphatically removed it when he dropped an s-bomb during Monday’s day-after-game news conference. It came in response to a question about Jones’ unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, a 15-yarder for taking a couple swings at Cardinals cornerback Byron Murphy that turned an early third-and-one situation into third-and-16.
“Critical mistake,” Vrabel said, rising to the moment. “That is absolutely nothing that we coach or teach, so that would fall into the category of doing dumb shit that hurts the team, right there in bold letters.”
Boom. Welcome to the club, Julio Jones. Not a lot of touchy-feely in that answer.
Up until his first game, we hadn’t heard a critical word breathed about Jones, who arrived – to great fanfare – via trade last June, the final component of what was expected to be an electric offense. Outside of his age (32 years old) and the fact he missed seven games last season due to injury, what was not to like about a probable Hall of Famer? Prior to last year, Jones had recorded six straight years of at least 80 receptions and at least 1,300 receiving yards.
Jones even earned bonus points for participating in voluntary Titans OTA sessions just after the trade, making a couple trips down and back from Atlanta so he could quickly start building chemistry with quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
The feel-good journey toward Jones’ first Titans regular season hit a pothole, however, when he took an awkward fall in the end zone about a week into training camp. It didn’t appear to be a significant injury, and Vrabel said after the practice that Jones was OK.
But Jones missed the next day’s practice. And the next. And the next. Three weeks later, Jones still hadn’t returned to the practice field, missing valuable reps with his new team, new quarterback and new play-caller. Again, we didn’t know the severity of Jones’ injury because the Titans never elaborated on it. But Vrabel seemed to indicate that Jones’ absence was due as much to risk avoidance as it was to an inability to participate.
“We’re going to be – probably – cautious with Julio,” Vrabel said during camp. “You’re going to see him out there at times. You’re going to see him on the other field (rehabbing at times). He’s played a lot of games. So, that’s kind of where we’re going to be each and every day.”
Jones eventually returned although not immediately as a full participant. He didn’t really reach top speed until the week leading up to the opener, when his name didn’t appear on the injury list.
Still, Vrabel and his staff expressed confidence that the time Jones missed wouldn’t significantly hurt him or his chemistry with Tannehill. In other words, they gave Jones the benefit of the doubt, figuring the well-established veteran knew himself well enough to be ready to roll on Sunday.
What did they get in return? Disappointment.
Jones managed just three catches on six targets for 29 yards against the Cardinals, with zero receptions over 10 yards. Hardly difference-making stuff.
But the basic stat line doesn’t tell the whole story. Jones simply didn’t get open. Per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, he averaged just 2.16 yards of separation when targeted against the Cardinals, more than a half yard below the league’s Week One average of 2.87 yards. It should be no surprise that four of Jones’ six targets were contested.
And when Tannehill tried to connect with Jones on a particularly tight-window throw in the third quarter, the ball tipped off Jones’ fingers and wound up intercepted by Isaiah Simmons. Jones was officially credited with one drop – on that very play – by Pro Football Focus. But there appeared to be another pass or two that a player of his stature – and salary -- might be expected to handle.
“We had some drops – (Jones) dropped some passes,” Vrabel said during his postgame press conference. “Those are contested catches, but those are the ones that we have to come up with.”
Just like that, Jones’ halo suffered a dent. It took another knock less than 24 hours later when Vrabel, given some time to stew, offered up the full “dumb shit that hurts the team” in referencing Jones’ penalty. He didn’t call it an unfortunate moment. He didn’t say that was a rare mistake by Jones – which it was. Vrabel made sure the message was delivered, even adding the “right there in bold letters” for emphasis.
Maybe Vrabel’s comment had no underlying meaning. Maybe he would have said the same about any other player that hindered the Titans with such a costly penalty.
But there was a little more, in my humble opinion: Vrabel and the coaches had Jones’ back through the long training-camp absence. In return, they expected more on Sunday. That didn’t happen.
So, it was time to remove the kid gloves, and treat Jones just like everybody else.