Chicago's success is due not just to Rex Grossman's emergence but to the choiceof Thomas Jones to start in the backfield
THE SWANKY model-search competition at a downtown Chicago hotel ended around 10p.m. on Tuesday night of last week, leaving Bears running back Thomas Jones anddefensive end Adewale Ogunleye, who were guests at the event, few options as tohow to spend the rest of the night. Ogunleye thought about heading home andgetting a good night's sleep before practice the next day. Jones checked hiswatch and then asked his teammate if he wanted to work out. When Ogunleyechuckled, Jones said he wasn't kidding—he needed to lift.
The significanceisn't just that Jones then went off by himself to spend nearly an hour pumpingiron in the basement of a friend's house in suburban Chicago. It's thatwhenever he misses a workout during the day, he finds time later, lifting aslate as 1 a.m. That kind of commitment has enabled Jones to keep his spot inthe Bears' starting backfield, even after Chicago spent the fourth pick of the2005 draft on Texas running back Cedric Benson. "I watched my mother workin a coal mine [in Big Stone Gap, Va.] when I was growing up, and I saw myfather drive two hours to work every day," Jones, a seven-year veteran,says. "So if my job is going to be in jeopardy, it's not going to bebecause I didn't do everything to keep it."
After rushingfor 1,335 yards and starting all but one game last season, Jones still had tofight for his job in training camp. It helped that he recovered from hisstrained right hamstring before Benson got over his sprained left shoulder. Inthe first two games of the season, wins over the Packers and the Lions, Jonescarried twice as many times (42) as Benson. In Sunday's 19--16 victory atMinnesota, he took all 18 of Rex Grossman's handoffs. Benson, who was expectedto be a big part of Chicago's attack, never got in the game.
Not that Jones'sproduction has been all that impressive: He has gained 181 yards on 60 carriesand 13 yards on five receptions. But those numbers are partially explained byopponents' committing eight or nine defenders to stopping the run and daringGrossman to beat them. (Which he did on Sunday, tossing a 24-yard touchdownpass to wide receiver Rashied Davis with under two minutes to play.) At thispoint the Bears simply trust Jones in their offense more than they do Benson.Says former Bills general manager Tom Donahoe, "Benson maybe has moreskills over the long haul, but Thomas is more dependable."
At 5'10" and220 pounds Jones is a durable back suited to the ball-control offense run bycoordinator Ron Turner, who regards Jones as "an excellent inside runnerwith a knack for making one cut and getting upfield." Jones is also areliable receiver and an instinctive blocker. "He's able to pick up blitzeson the backside of the defense that aren't even his responsibility because hecan sense when they're coming," Grossman says. "It says a lot that hecan understand the whole offense instead of just what he has to do on thefield."
Jones workedhard to become a 1,000-yard rusher after his pro career stalled early on. AnAll-America at Virginia, he was drafted at No. 7 by the Cardinals in 2000.Instead of becoming their featured back, however, Jones averaged a mere 421yards over three seasons, injuries slowing him in his third year. Arizonatraded him to Tampa Bay in June 2003. That deal was the start of a turnaroundfor Jones.
First, Bucscoach Jon Gruden gave him jersey number 6 to wear in practice—the number Joneshad worn in college—as a reminder of how dominant the back used to be. Then,sharing the rushing load with Michael Pittman, Jones gained 627 yards andaveraged 4.6 yards per carry. "I felt like I was more than just some guy onthe team, which is how I felt in Arizona," Jones says. After the season hebecame a free agent and signed with the Bears, rushing for 948 yards in2004.
But just whenJones thought he had proved himself, Chicago drafted Benson. "I won't saythat I didn't take it personally, because I did," Jones says. "But Ieventually realized I couldn't do anything about it. My job isn't to draftplayers. It's to play ball." He went on to have his best season as a pro,while Benson, who missed significant time with a sprained medial collateralligament in his right knee, picked up 272 yards on 67 carries.
In theoff-season, though, coach Lovie Smith demoted Jones to second string after theback chose to work out with his personal trainer at his home in Fort Lauderdalerather than attend the Bears' voluntary program. He says he was willing to"let the chips fall where they may. I knew my work ethic, and I knew thegame of football. Regardless of what was going on, I knew good things wouldhappen."
Benson has tohope for the same, though it's not in his hands. As he trudged off the field onSunday, having sat out an entire game for the first time since his freshmanyear at Texas, Benson received encouragement from a couple of assistantcoaches. "We got caught in the rhythm of the game, and we didn't get himinvolved," Smith said.
Benson handledit. "I'm the backup for now," he said. "That's the way it is, andthe only thing that makes it easier is knowing that it's temporary."
The problem forBenson, however, is that temporary could be longer than he imagines. "I'vehad the opportunity here to show why I was the seventh pick," Jones says."And I'm going to keep doing everything I can to keep provingthat."
A Ray of Hope InSouth Florida
Things arelooking up for quarterback Daunte Culpepper. After getting his first win as aDolphin with a 13--10 victory over the Titans on Sunday, he faces the 0--3Texans this weekend. Culpepper is also starting to show improved mobility afterright-knee surgery last November—he ran for a five-yard touchdown againstTennessee—while proving that the criticism surrounding his slow start hasn'thurt his confidence.
Culpepper was soshaky at the outset of the season that in a Week 2 loss to the Bills, Miamifans chanted for backup Joey Harrington to enter the game. Culpepper wasn'tfazed. "No matter what, I kind of lose myself in the work I have todo," he says. "Meetings, watching film, that's what I worry about. Iworry about team morale, making sure guys are up and ready to play football. Idon't worry about a lot of the things other people say, because it's a longyear."
If the Dolphinswant to make Culpepper's life easier, they should protect him better. Aftergiving up seven sacks to Buffalo, the blockers allowed five more on Sunday.Those 12 sacks are the most Miami has allowed over two games since 1980.
After openly complaining about the Browns'conservative offense, tight end Kellen Winslow (right) was on the field forevery offensive snap in Sunday's 15--14 loss to the Ravens. He caught sevenpasses for 92 yards and later acknowledged he was wrong to call out hiscoaches.... Partly because of injuries, the Cardinals started a differentlineup on the offensive line in each of the first three weeks. Worse, EdgerrinJames still hasn't had a 100-yard rushing game for his new team. "I thinkwe all agree, you put in the guys and ride it out—not move guys allaround," James said, after Sunday's 16--14 loss to the Rams.... Texansdefensive end Mario Williams, the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft, has played inthree preseason and three regular-season games without getting a sack. He hadthree tackles, including two unassisted stops, in a 31--15 loss to the Redskinson Sunday.
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DOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES (JONES)
NO BACKING DOWN Even after a 1,335-yard season in '05, Jones had to fight for the No. 1 job.
TOM DAHLIN (JONES)
[See caption above]
G. NEWMAN LOWRANCE/WIREIMAGE.COM (WINSLOW)