Commentary

Friendly atmosphere helping Jones adjust

The chance to play in a drama-free backfield is among the many things Thomas Jones likes about being Jet, writes Jeffri Chadiha.

Originally Published: August 2, 2007
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Like most players who change teams, New York Jets running back Thomas Jones has found plenty to like about his current environment.

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He loves that the Jets are willing to work as hard as his former teammates with the Chicago Bears, the organization that traded Jones to New York for a second-round pick in March. He also appreciates the Jets' hunger to capitalize on their surprising success and playoff appearance last season. Finally, Jones just can't say enough about how good it feels to be free of the drama that surrounded him in the Bears' backfield. That one, in case you didn't know it, means quite a bit to him.

As Jones settles in for his first season with the Jets, he knows one key thing: He and second-year running back Leon Washington are going to get along just fine. Jones will bring toughness and consistency to a backfield that used four different runners last season while Washington, who gained 650 yards as a rookie, will provide the breakaway potential. They should develop into a nice combination because Jones can't say enough about his counterpart.

"He's a good guy and a hard worker," Jones said. "You can already tell we're going to have a great relationship. We've got the kind of situation that is going to make it easier for us on game days."

What Jones doesn't have to say is that he's excited to be playing alongside a player who isn't going to irritate him. He had to deal with such a situation in Chicago, where he knew Cedric Benson, the fourth overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft, was waiting to take his job. It's always been a poorly kept secret that Jones and Benson didn't get along when they played together. But during a recent interview, Jones publicly admitted that there really wasn't much love between the two.

Their relationship, unlike the one blossoming between Jones and Washington, was one that never had chance. From the minute Benson arrived in Chicago, it was apparent to Jones that Jones was going to be a short-timer in that town, even though he gained at least 1,200 yards in each of the last two seasons.

"You always know there is a possibility that you're going to be gone when a team takes a player that high," Jones said. "You know they want to give him an opportunity. But the thing is that he also had an opportunity to take my spot and he couldn't get it away from me. So the only way to give him more of a chance was to get me out of there. That's how this business works. And I didn't take it personally."

Thomas Jones
AP Photo Ed BetzThomas Jones' versatility and blue-collar approach made him attractive to the Jets.

In case you're wondering, Jones' issues with Benson didn't come down to playing time. As Jones already is proving with Washington, he can handle sharing the carries. It was simply a personality clash. Benson is candid and outspoken; Jones is quiet and understated, a player who leads by example.

"When we researched Thomas, that's the one thing we kept hearing about him," said Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum. "We knew he was the kind of guy who made people want to work harder."

What bothered Jones the most about Benson was the younger player's penchant for ill-timed comments. As Jones said, "Cedric was a young guy who came in with high expectations. I had been in a similar situation when I was drafted [Arizona selected Jones seventh overall in the 2000 draft] but I handled things differently. I was willing to learn from the veterans and try to fit in. Cedric was more concerned with what he was going to do and disrespecting guys in the process by saying controversial things. Instead of letting his play do his talking, he tried to verbalize what he was going to do."

Jones added that he wasn't the only person who shared that sentiment.

"When I look at Leon here, I know we're on the same team. But in Chicago, it felt like it was all the running backs versus Cedric Benson. He just didn't want to be one of the guys."

Being "one of the guys" means a lot to Jones. It's what helped make him so attractive to the Jets in the first place. Tannenbaum and head coach Eric Mangini knew the essential stuff -- Jones had the versatility to handle pass protection and route-running along with carrying the football  but they also loved his background. Jones' mother, Betty, spent 20 years working in a Virginia coal mine while his father, Thomas, Sr., held multiple jobs to support his family. The Jets knew Jones had the same blue-collar approach to his craft.

Even now, I get the sense that Jones will never let his recent success swell his ego. He's had to face too many hurdles throughout a career that started with him bombing in Arizona, then resurfacing in Tampa Bay and finally finding a home in Chicago over the last three seasons. Jones is quick to say that it's impossible to describe how it feels to go from a lousy Cardinals team as a rookie to playing in the Super Bowl in Chicago. He also wouldn't change a thing about his career.

"It's made me a tougher person," Jones said.

It's also made him a player who should become a serious difference-maker in the Jets' offense. Since Jones handled the ball only 40 percent of the time during his first four years in the NFL, the Jets feel confident that he'll be a productive back for a few more years, despite the fact that he turns 29 on Aug. 19. They also know he'll open up the play-action passing that vanished from the offense last season and led to quarterback Chad Pennington throwing a career-high 16 interceptions. More than anything, they realize he appreciates another chance to show he's a complete back.

It's important to note here that Jones doesn't hold anything against the Bears. He's grateful for the opportunity they supplied and he stays in touch with many ex-teammates. What he understands is that Chicago had to do what was right for the investment it made in Benson. And when this season ends, Jones believes his new team will be just as pleased that they made such a strong commitment to him.

Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.