Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones considers his return from a broken foot both a football and a medical miracle.
“Without God, none of this would be possible for me to get back out there,” Jones said. “I’ve just been staying faithful. I had to slowly build that strength back up. I’m almost back to the old Julio.”
That’s good news for the Falcons, who are set to open the 2014 season against the New Orleans Saints at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
If the Falcons are going to rebound from a dismal losing season, Jones will be a central figure.
Last season’s descent from Super Bowl contender to 4-12 went off the rails after Jones broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot in the fifth game of the season.
Without Jones, who was on pace for a record-setting season, the Falcons won their next game before dropping five in a row and eight of their final 10 games.
He was cleared for training camp and made it through a regimented practice schedule before playing in the second exhibition game in Houston. In the third game against Tennessee at the Georgia Dome, he flashed his speed and game-breaking ability on a 52-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown.
A problem was discovered in Jones’ foot at the scouting combine in 2011. A screw was inserted in the foot in February of 2011.
He had a solid rookie season with 54 catches for 959 yards in 13 starts. In 2012, he went to the Pro Bowl after catching 79 passes for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Last season, he had 41 catches through five games, a pace for 131 catches. That total would have been second only to Marvin Harrison’s 143 catches for the Indianapolis Colts in 2002.
In October, Jones underwent a cutting-edge surgery that was performed by renowned foot specialist Dr. Robert Anderson of Charlotte, N.C. He took bone marrow — fluid and cells — from Jones’ hip and injected them into his foot to aide the healing process.
In addition to the bone-marrow procedure, Jones had a second and bigger screw inserted into the fifth metatarsal.
Also, Jones had some specially made shoes to aid his recovery.
Jones admitted that there was some apprehension before he played against the Texans on Aug. 23, 10 months after the surgery.
“I just had to get back on the same page with Matt (Ryan) and start making plays,” Jones said. “It’s just a part of it mentally. Just being back out there on that field and being conscious of guys trying to come up and tackle you and you’re still trying to protect your foot.
“But the doctor said everything is 100 percent and I just have to believe in him. Just get my confidence back.”
He passed that first test.
“It felt good,” Jones said. “No pain. I’m still getting treatment.”
The Falcons were elated after the Tennessee game. Jones’ touchdown was the type of play they envisioned him making when they traded five picks to the Cleveland Browns to move up 21 spots to select him sixth overall in 2011.
“He looks great to me,” Ryan said. “He’s done a great job for us during training camp.”
The Falcons know they’ll need Jones if they are to rebound this season.
“When he’s on the field, we’re a better football team,” Ryan said. “There is no question about it. He’s one of the few guys in the league that is as explosive as he is and can change games the way he can. Cut and dry, we’re better when he’s on the field.”
Jones didn’t want to rush his recovery and looked at little things as milestones. Like the day the Falcons moved practice indoors from the rain.
Jones was happy to get a chance to test the foot on turf.
“The Georgia Dome has turf and that just gave me more reps on turf to make me feel more comfortable when gametime comes around,” Jones said.
While Jones appears fine, he is perhaps his toughest critic.
“I can get up to speed good,” Jones said. “I can’t hold it as long as I want to hold it like over a course of game. Right now, I probably could give you 65 plays or so, I mean that’s a whole game, but the way that I play in the running game and everything, I want to be at full speed for the whole game. I don’t feel like I’m there yet.”
Jones believes the Falcons’ offense can be among the NFL’s most productive.
With Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas, the Falcons can throw three 1,000-yard receivers in the lineup at one time. They also have Devin Hester for four-wide receiver formations. The Falcons plan to use three- and four-receivers formations in the passing game to help offset the retirement of tight end Tony Gonzalez.
“Devin Hester is a great weapon for us,” Jones said. “When he’s running those slants one-on-one, he’s a smaller guy, but he’s fast. He can make two or three guys miss and take it to the end zone.”
The Falcons hope to have a healthy Steven Jackson at running back.
“Can’t nobody really stop us, but us,” Jones said. “That’s the attitude that we have to have. We know what we have to do.”
Roster moves: Nate Stupar, a 6-foot-2, 240-pound linebacker, was claimed off waivers. He was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the seventh-round (230th overall) of the 2012 draft. He’s spent time with the Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers and Jacksonville Jaguars. Signed to the practice squad on Sunday were cornerback Ricardo Allen, safety Sean Baker, guard Harland Gunn, tackle Terren Jones, wide receiver Bernard Reedy, defensive tackle Travian Robertson, linebacker Jacques Smith and running back Jerome Smith.
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