Jones setting the tone

BOURBONNAIS -- Thomas Jones has never lived up to expectations in the NFL. He better this season, or it could be another disastrous year in Chicago.

While Rex Grossman has a lot on his shoulders going into the 2004 season, it's Thomas Jones that holds the key to the Bears' success.

"I definitely think this offense fits the way I play," Jones said. "In the running game, there's a lot of outside zone plays, a lot of opportunities for me to use my speed outside, and also a lot of opportunities to get up between the tackles (inside).

"I'm exciting about the offense and I'm just ready to play."

Jones hasn't had the kind of NFL career that scouts expected. The former first-round draft pick (No. 7 to Arizona in 2000), Jones has never rushed for over 1,000 yards, and he's never been able to live up to the role of being the lead back.

In Chicago, the Bears are banking on Jones to finally come into his own.

"Thomas Jones has had an excellent off-season camp, really from start to finish," new Bears coach Lovie Smith said.

Jones is expected to be the back the Bears need in Terry Shea's new offense, which relies on running backs catching the football. The Bears went after Jones and signed him on the first day of free agency in early March. However, Shea goes from having Priest Holmes in Kansas City to Jones in Chicago.

Grossman's development is crucial to Jones being able to open things up for the second-year starting quarterback. The 5-foot-10, 220-pound Jones is strong, quick and has something the Bears felt Anthony Thomas lacked -- soft hands out of the backfield.

Rumors are Thomas -- who has rushed for over 1,000 yards in two of three seasons, but still lost his job -- is being shopped around. Miami, which recently lost Ricky Williams to retirement, is reported to be interested in Thomas, who is a free agent after the season.

"I came in (before and) I was starting. I've been here before so I've just got to go out and fight," Thomas said. "I've been a starter before, so I'm just going to go out there and practice like I'm a starter. If anything happens, I'll step in and fill shoes."

Jones doesn't see a problem playing with Thomas, or the fact that he took A-Train's job without actually beating him out. Since the day he was signed, the Bears made it known that Jones wasn't brought in to be a backup.

"I like competition and look forward to it," Jones said. "It only makes you better, and it will only make (Thomas) better. That can only help this football team."

Last season, Jones played for Tampa Bay and rushed for a career-high 627 yards. He never rushed for more than 3.7 yards a carry in three seasons in Arizona, but still the Bears signed him to a four-year contract. The hope is Jones can put up the kind of numbers that turned him into one of the best running backs in the nation at Virginia. He ranks fourth in ACC history with 3,998 yards rushing, and broke Virginia's career mark that was previously held by the Giants' Tiki Barber.

"I'm excited about this offense, this team and I'm excited to be here," Jones said. "I'm thankful for the opportunity under Coach Smith and I look forward to the season.

"I've put the past behind me."

By the numbers
Thomas Jones
2003 Tampa Bay 627 yards rushing 4.6 average yards per carry
2002 Arizona 511, 3.7 YPC
2001 Arizona 380, 3.4 YPC
2000 Arizona 373, 3.3 YPC
CAREER 1,891 rushing yards, 3.8 avg.

Anthony Thomas
2003 Bears 1,024, 4.2 YPC 2002 Bears 721, 3.4 YPC 2001 Bears 1,183, 4.3 YPC CAREER 2,928 rushing yards, 4.0 avg.

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