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Jones still the one in two-back system

2/2/2007

MIAMI -- Rex Grossman's best call of the season came in training camp while Lovie Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo were pushing Cedric Benson to be the starting running back.

Grossman said he expected Thomas Jones to resurface and be a major factor this season. Benson might have been the fourth pick in the 2005 draft, but Jones was the top pick of his teammates. As a back, Jones did it all. He rushed for 1,335 yards for the Bears in 2005. He caught the ball well out of the backfield. His pass blocking was exceptional.

The biggest challenge for Jones was getting through training camp. He anticipated the push to get Benson more carries and stayed away from the team's offseason program. Once he arrived in training camp, Jones fulfilled Grossman's prophecy.


"I just believe in my abilities, and I never gave up on my abilities as far as what I could do for this football team," Jones said. "I was coming off a 1,300-yard season. I know what I meant to the offense. I know what I meant to the team. It was an unfortunate situation with the whole offseason thing, but once you get down to football, it's football. The other stuff you kind of throw out the window and that is what I did. I focused on playing football, making myself a better player and helping us win football games. I didn't get caught up in what everyone was saying and what was going on. I just worried about me."

Now, the Colts have to worry about Jones. He overpowered the Saints for 123 yards in the NFC Championship Game to carry the Bears to the Super Bowl. While Benson has his role as a power back, Jones remains the featured back.

Center Olin Kreutz says the thing outsiders don't know about Jones is how hard he works during the week. He does extra work in the weight room. He works extra hard to give his body a chance to recover after the pounding it may take during a normal Sunday. Bears teammates appreciate his professionalism. Grossman appreciates how Jones is willing to sacrifice his body to stop a rushing defender who's trying to disrupt the passing game.

"As the season goes on, your body is naturally going to wear down. But the more you work out and the more you try to maintain your strength, you are going to be better off at the end of the season," Jones said. "It's not necessarily running, but it's blocking that takes more of a toll on you more than anything because you are constantly hitting guys who are maybe 250 to 260 pounds. I am 215 pounds. They are a lot heavier than me."


Unlike Jones, Benson hasn't mastered the pass protection part of the game. But maybe, for all their differences, Jones and Benson are a little alike. Like Benson, Jones was a high first-round pick (No. 7 overall in the 2000 draft). Like Benson, Jones struggled to convince coaches to give him more playing time. Jones shared playing time with Michael Pittman and eventually had to bounce from Arizona to Tampa Bay to Chicago to find himself.

Once he arrived in Chicago, though, he found a home. After Jones rushed for 948 yards in 2004, his first year in Chicago, Ron Turner took over as offensive coordinator in 2005. Turner installed some of the Broncos' zone blocking schemes that utilized Jones' best skills: his speed and his ability to make quick decisions.

During a Super Bowl XLI media session, Jones was asked to compare himself to a car. He picked a Ferrari. That's him. He's quick. He turns corners on a dime. Once in the open field, Jones can accelerate.

Benson has struggled all season to find himself and has yet to hit the comfort zone Jones has had throughout his Bears days. Benson and Jones share the position, but Jones is clearly the lead.

"Cedric is more of a downhill guy, a bruiser back," Jones said. "He is going to meet a guy head up a majority of the time. His main thing when he gets to the open field is punishing guys, that's what he likes to do. He likes to go headfirst and that is kind of intimidating for defensive backs. I come in and I'm kind of shifty but I will take on guys if I have to, but I would rather make a guy miss and get the extra yard. This is how we complement each other."

Jones' contract runs out in 2007 so Benson may eventually take over the starting job. For now, it's Jones' time. Grossman and his teammates sensed that, even though management toyed with the idea of giving the job to Benson.

The Bears like driving the Ferrari.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.