Jones-Drew excelling under the radar
For a player who prides himself on leading by example, Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew had plenty to say following his team's 41-0 loss to Seattle on Oct. 11. He told his teammates that such a humiliating defeat was totally unacceptable. He implored them to put more time into their preparation, both on and off the field. And then Jones-Drew went back to doing what has made him so special -- he kept finding ways to produce big plays for an offense that hinges on his sturdy shoulders.
If you haven't been paying attention lately, Jones-Drew has been on fire this fall. He leads the NFL with 12 touchdowns, and his 860 rushing yards ranks fifth in the league. What Jones-Drew also has done is provide much-needed leadership for a middling Jaguars team that now has a 5-4 record and realistic playoff aspirations. In other words, something is definitely wrong if this guy isn't playing in his first Pro Bowl when this season ends.
The best way for Jones-Drew to achieve that goal is for him to keep delivering for the Jaguars.
The Jaguars appear to be getting the idea. They've won three of their past four games since Jones-Drew called them out, and he's averaged 132.5 yards in those contests. In fact, it's amazing that he hasn't received more recognition for how he's helped his team, both this season and in the past. In the four years since he entered the league, only San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson has scored more touchdowns than Jones-Drew (66 to 52).
Jones-Drew can beat defenses with his running ability and his pass-catching skills, and he's still a capable return man (although the Jaguars don't ask him to handle that task any longer). However, he remains a talent who is largely overshadowed by other backs. There's Adrian Peterson in Minnesota, Michael Turner in Atlanta and, more recently, Chris Johnson in Tennessee. Part of that is a result of playing in Jacksonville. Another factor is Jones-Drew's humble personality.
Even though Houston Texans middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans calls him the most frustrating runner in the league -- "He's the toughest guy to bring down because he's fast and he runs so low to the ground," Ryans said -- Jones-Drew praises his teammates for his success.
"The people around me are doing a great job," Jones-Drew said. "I've got [fullback] Greg Jones in front of me, so he makes my life easier. And I also have a good offensive line. Those guys didn't play together until our last preseason game, but they've been getting better every week. They really are helping me run the ball."
Still, Jones-Drew deserves plenty of credit for how his career has evolved. He spent the last three seasons sharing backfield duties with Fred Taylor -- who was released during the offseason -- and many people wondered how Jones-Drew would handle a heavier workload. It wasn't a question of talent, either. It was a more a matter of how his 5-foot-7, 208-pound frame would endure the constant pounding that comes with life as a full-time NFL runner.
So far, Jones-Drew has answered those questions easily, mainly because he hasn't put too much pressure on himself. This was a valuable lesson that he gained from Taylor this offseason. The older running back emphasized that Jones-Drew shouldn't over-prepare for his first season as a feature back. As Taylor explained, the last thing Jones-Drew needed was to wear his body down in the spring because that might eventually lead to injuries during the regular season.
The influence of running backs coach Kennedy Pola can't be ignored either. Jones-Drew was a dazzling, powerful runner before he joined the Jaguars in 2006. Now he's a more complete player.
"He helped me to be a better every-down player," Jones-Drew said of Pola. "He helped me open my eyes and see the field better when I'm running the ball. He helped me learn how to read defenses and anticipate coverage when I'm a receiver. I've just learned how to play faster by being around him."
One thing Jones-Drew didn't have to learn about was motivation. He still bristles about how he came into the league as a late second-round pick (60th overall) following a stellar career at UCLA. Of course, his size was a major concern for scouts at that time. It was hard for some teams to see him as anything more than a change-of-pace runner at the pro level.
Since then, all Jones-Drew has done is remind people about how silly preconceived notions can be in this league. Of all the backs selected ahead of him -- a group that includes New Orleans' Reggie Bush, New England's Laurence Maroney and Indianapolis' Joseph Addai -- only Carolina's DeAngelo Williams has gained more rushing yards over the last four seasons. Still, Jones-Drew believes he'll never shake the doubters.
"You're usually judged of your first impression," he said. "And mine clearly wasn't that good because I went so low in the draft."
As hard as it might be for Jones-Drew to accept that, he has silenced the doubters. He spent the first three seasons of his career proving his talents, and he entered this season with a four-year, $31 million contract extension that made him one of the league's highest-paid backs. Now, the next step is for him to use those skills to guide his team back into the playoffs (Jacksonville's last postseason appearance was in 2007). And even if that doesn't happen, nobody can deny Jones-Drew his place among the NFL's best.
Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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