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'I'm sorry,' Aaron Jones said after tough NFC title game loss that might have been his final game with Packers
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'I'm sorry,' Aaron Jones said after tough NFC title game loss that might have been his final game with Packers

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Packers' Aaron Jones fumbles after being hit by Buccaneers' Jordan Whitehead during the second half of the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 24. 

GREEN BAY — Allen Lazard was both stunned, because no one else would have said what he’d just heard, and not surprised at all, because of the person who was saying it — Aaron Jones.

In the wake of the Green Bay Packers’ 31-26 NFC Championship Game loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Lazard was worried about his friend. Jones, the Packers running back who’d put together back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, had possibly played his final game in green and gold with unrestricted free agency looming.

And it had not gone well.

Jones’ potentially final game had ended painfully, both physically (with a chest injury) and in terms of his performance (two fumbles, including one that he lost and led directly to a Buccaneers touchdown and a 28-10 Packers deficit). The chest injury had come early in the third quarter, on the second fumble, and he never returned to the game. His final stat line: Six carries for 27 yards, four receptions for 7 yards.

So, a few hours after the game had ended, Lazard called Jones.

“Just to kind of make sure he was good and everything,” Lazard said. “And Aaron, just with the nature he is as a human, apologizes — saying, ‘I’m sorry.’

“I’m like, ‘Look, you’ve got to realize that we’re not playing in this game, we’re not in this position without the efforts that you had all season long.’ So just because someone’s gotten hurt or maybe didn’t have the best game, you can’t discredit the 17 other games that we played this year and their efforts that helped this team get to where we are today.”

Whether Jones will have the opportunity to continue those efforts with the Packers remains to be seen — and is up, in part, to him and his new agent, Drew Rosenhaus, who was at Sunday’s game in the Lambeau Field stands with Jones’ family members. ESPN.com reported earlier this month that the Packers had made an extension offer to Jones late in the season that would have made him one of the five highest-paid running backs in the league based on annual average salary.

But the offer lacked the amount of guaranteed money Jones was seeking, ESPN.com reported, so he rejected it — and then fired his agent and hired Rosenhaus.

Jones isn’t the only key player whose future is uncertain, as fellow running back Jamaal Williams, first-team All-Pro center Corey Linsley, cornerback Kevin King and tight end Marcedes Lewis are also important contributors who are set to become free agents.

Linsley said last week that the Packers have had no contract talks with his agent, an ominous sign that he’ll hit the open market in March and is likely to be playing somewhere else in 2021.

That could be the case with Jones, too, especially with the Packers’ challenging salary cap situation. It’s unclear whether the NFL will drop the cap to $175 million because of the league’s COVID-19 losses, but the Packers are projected to be over the cap by nearly $30 million. If the cap stays flat at roughly $198 million, the Packers’ situation isn’t as dire but would still be challenging given the other impending free agents.

The 26-year-old Jones had a breakout season in 2019, racking up 1,558 total yards from scrimmage and tying for the NFL lead with 19 total touchdowns. This season, although his touchdown numbers dropped (11), he rushed for 1,104 yards (fourth-most in the NFL) and finished with 1,459 total yards from scrimmage.

Earlier in the season, Jones acknowledged that he was consciously trying to keep his contract situation out of his thoughts, especially after seeing fellow 2017 draftees such as New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara and Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook get new deals.

But as the regular season came to a close and news of his decision to change agents came to light, Jones was even more insistent that he was “focused on football” and that his uncertain future wasn’t on his mind.

Williams would be a less expensive option to re-sign, and having invested a second-round pick in Boston College running back AJ Dillon in last April’s draft, the Packers do appear to have insulated themselves against overpaying Jones and, if it comes to it, seem positioned to let him walk for a more lucrative deal elsewhere. Dillon ran for 124 yards and two touchdowns in the Packers’ Dec. 27 win over Tennessee, outdueling 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry, and Williams finished the year with 741 combined regular-season yards from scrimmage.

But given how even the biggest running-back contracts have played out — the Dallas Cowboys’ deal with Ezekiel Elliott has become an albatross around their salary-cap neck, and Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey, a game-changing player to be sure, missed most of the 2020 season with injuries — perhaps Jones will find a soft market that will lead him back to Green Bay, where he said is “where my heart is at” late in the year.

For now, though, that’s all up in the air. When asked in the days leading up to the NFC Championship Game about his mentality during his four seasons in the NFL — and even going back to his college days at UTEP — Jones’ answer gave a glimpse into why he would feel the way he did a little more than 48 hours later, after his performance against the Buccaneers.

“You’ve got to want greatness and want to be great,” Jones said. “You’ve got to want to improve every day. And that’s the mentality I have — just never be satisfied, just continue to get better every day until you’re the greatest.”


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