Inspired Jones craves workhorse label
Still bitter about how things ended in Dallas, RB Julius Jones is determined to take his game to a new level in Seattle, writes Mike Sando.
"It was just a feeling of disgust," said the man who had started 39 consecutive regular-season games for the Cowboys.
Jones' once-promising career as the Cowboys' starting halfback died a humiliating death. He was happy to land in Seattle as the Seahawks' likely starter in the post-Shaun Alexander era. But nearly three months into his new life on the West Coast, Jones hasn't yet reconciled the way things went down in Dallas. That much was clear in a talk with Jones after a minicamp practice Monday.
"I definitely have a chip on my shoulder," he said. "I'm going to carry it every single year, every single practice, every single game. It's not going anywhere until I can prove what kind of back that I am and kind of redeem myself from the embarrassment that they have kind of put me through."
Jones carried three times for 8 yards during the Cowboys' 21-17 loss to the New York Giants in their NFC divisional game at Texas Stadium. Despite those 39 consecutive starts, Jones finished the team's most important game in years with the same number of carries as quarterback Tony Romo.
Teams routinely make difficult personnel decisions at the expense of players' feelings. Jones acknowledged as much. But to hardly play at all didn't seem right to him.
"I took that hard," Jones said. "I'll never forget that, ever."
Marion Barber made the Cowboys' decision easier by carrying 27 times for 129 yards against the Giants. Barber has rushed for 2,167 yards and 29 touchdowns in three seasons despite starting only three games. Last season, he averaged about three more carries per game than Jones, gaining an additional 1.2 yards per carry (4.8 to 3.6).
Dallas re-signed Barber to a seven-year, $45 million deal with a $12 million signing bonus. Jones settled for a four-year, $11.8 million deal in Seattle, with $3 million to sign.
From the Cowboys' perspective, they didn't give up on Jones as much as they decided to go with a younger, larger and more inspirational alternative. Barber runs with abandon, no question.
"He appears to have good quickness, good hands, bright guy," Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said. "I don't see any downside. That will work out fine."
Seeing no downside isn't the same as seeing lots of upside.
The way Jones sees things, not even the Seahawks know what they're getting. They expect Jones to give them a few things Alexander did not, notably the ability to stay on the field across situations. At his best, Alexander was a dynamic runner and red zone threat whose faulty blocking and receiving could limit Holmgren's options as a playcaller. Jones has proved to be a much better blocker and receiver, and he's far more willing than Alexander to take on defenders. But with a 3.9-yard career average and 18 career touchdowns, the numbers don't measure up.
"The way I feel about being a running back is, everybody in the NFL can run the ball," Jones said. "There are a select few that will stick their nose in there and be willing to stand up to a Julian Peterson or a Lofa Tatupu. I think that separates the men from the boys."
The Seahawks have yet to separate Jones from longtime backup Maurice Morris on the depth chart. Morris remains an option. Fullback Leonard Weaver will touch the ball some as a runner and receiver. Holmgren said he hasn't decided how to use free-agent addition T.J. Duckett:
"Is he a fullback, is he a halfback, do I use him in short yardage, and who comes out of the game if I do that?"
In recent years, Holmgren gave special consideration to which running back was in the game before deciding how to call plays. He made similar concessions for the tight end position. Even if Jones and Morris do not give him what Alexander once did in the ground game, their versatility could open up the playbook.
"In the few seconds you have to really try and make an intelligent call, you don't have to think so much about protections, who is in the game, the type of route you call," Holmgren said. "You can call the play and go."
The Seahawks ran more traps and screens when Ricky Watters was the starter during Holmgren's early years with the team. At his best, Alexander was more effective running cutbacks and gashing teams from pass-oriented personnel groupings and formations. The screen game could return with Jones, Morris and a skilled offensive line coach in newcomer Mike Solari. But if the term "running back by committee" becomes the mantra in Seattle, it means the team doesn't have a marquee back.
Jones wants more than anything to emerge as an every-down back. Despite all those starts in Dallas, his carries never exceeded 267 in a season. Alexander averaged 330 carries per season while averaging 1,501 yards and 17.4 rushing touchdowns during a five-year stretch.
Age and injuries bit into those numbers the past two seasons. Fans who had tolerated Alexander's softer running style turned on him when the production faltered. They booed their former league MVP. Fans will surely appreciate Jones' comparatively aggressive style, as long as he produces.
"I'm a lot tougher than what people think," Jones said. "I like to take the ball up the middle. I like those tough yards. I'm not scared of contact at all. I'm just a pure runner. Some guys are this, some guys are that and some guys are just football players. I'm a football player."
Jones' touchdown production declined every season he was with Dallas, from seven as a rookie to two last season. The Seahawks might remember Jones for trampling their defense on his way to 198 yards and three touchdowns, but that was in 2004. Jones was on pace for a 1,300-yard season in 2005, but injuries cut short his season by four starts. The Cowboys stuck with him as their main man for 10 games in 2006 before cutting him back to about 10 carries per game, a pace that continued through Jones' final season in Dallas.
"It sucks," Jones said of the diminished touches. "I'm not an arrogant guy; I'm not a cocky guy. But I just know what I can do. I've been playing for a while and I've proven myself. When given the opportunity, I make things happen. I just want an opportunity. That's all I want."
Jones declined to say whether the Cowboys would be better or worse with Barber and first-round draft choice Felix Jones in the backfield.
"All I know is what Julius can do," the Seahawks running back said, "and he can do a lot. He is a big-time back. I want to get back to that. I want to show everybody."
Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.