GREEN BAY, Wis. — Philadelphia Eagles teammates were getting a kick out of the attention cornerback Craig James was receiving in the locker room after he made a game-sealing play in the closing moments of a 34-27 win against the Green Bay Packers on Thursday night.
“Hey, Craig, why are you taking your shirt off during the interview? You had it on all day,” shouted defensive back Rasul Douglas.
“Craig James!” another yelled.
“Oh,” said safety Malcolm Jenkins as he walked by the media encircling James, “you know who he is now!”
James introduced himself to a lot of people on Thursday, including future Hall of Famer and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who saw James enter the game and went right after him.
And why not. James had never played a professional snap on defense before a scary Avonte Maddox injury late in the game forced him into action. Called up from the practice squad Tuesday, he was the only corner available to pair with Douglas (Sidney Jones left earlier in the game with a hamstring injury), so he was inserted into the lineup with just 1:06 remaining. The Packers set up inside the 10-yard line.
“Jenk told me, ‘You know where the ball is coming.’ I was targeted, no doubt,” James said. “I’m the guy nobody knows about. Just coming into the game. Right when you see that new guy, it’s like, ‘Yeah, we’ve got to target him. That’s the weakness of the defense right now.’ You can’t blame them.”
Sure enough, on second-and-goal, Rodgers targeted James by dialing up a slant to Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
“I couldn’t let him inside, so when I saw him take that inside release, I just attacked,” James said.
James forced a deflection that bounced right to linebacker Nigel Bradham for the interception. Ballgame.
An undrafted free agent out of Southern Illinois, James signed with the Minnesota Vikings last April and appeared in three regular-season games, with all of his snaps coming on special teams. He was waived in August and joined the Eagles’ practice squad in early September. He has spent the past several weeks bouncing back and forth between the practice squad and 53-man roster.
A Ronald Darby injury brought him back up to the active roster this week. James spent Thursday’s game at defensive back coach Cory Undlin’s hip on the sideline before injuries to Maddox and Jones got him into the mix.
“He was ready for the challenge, obviously, and made a huge play for us to get a win — at a great time for us because we needed it against a great team on the road,” Jenkins said. “No bigger moment than that for him, so I’m definitely proud of him.
“I’ve only got two snaps to grade him, but he’s grading out pretty well right now.”
The Eagles managed to escape Green Bay with a win, avoiding a 1-3 start that would have had the city of Philadelphia in a panic. There is still plenty to be concerned about, including a cornerback group that is down four of its top players in Jalen Mills, Darby, Jones and Maddox. Whether James can keep grading out well if called on for a bigger role is yet to be seen.
But if the Eagles do go on to make a playoff push, James’ play might very well be looked on as the turning point of the season.
“No bigger moment right now than that play,” Jenkins said, “and he made it.”