Can Jones Keep up the Pace?

Lake Forest - RB Thomas Jones is having a career year rushing the football. He's on pace to best all of his previous marks, but the question is will he be able to stick around to do so?

Talent has never been a question when it came to Jones' game. He was the seventh overall pick in the 2000 draft coming of Virginia because he ran for 3,998 yards in the ACC.

However, it has taken far longer to get his game on track in the NFL. Stops in Arizona and Tampa Bay left him with 18 starts over his first four years in the league.

Jones signed a four-year, $10 million deal with the Bears as a free agent in 2004 to be the starter in Chicago. In his first season with the Bears, he established career highs in rushing yards (948), carries (240), touchdowns (6), receptions (56) and most importantly starts (14).

While Jones missed two games because of a toe injury, he proved he could be a featured back in the league. Still the Bears were concerned enough about his durability to use the fourth pick in the 2005 draft on RB Cedric Benson.

The Bears said it was still Jones' job to lose heading into training camp and the best man would come away as the starter. The competition never materialized because Benson missed the entire preseason because of a 36-day contract impasse with the team.

By the time Bensons inked a $16 million guaranteed deal, Jones had put together a stellar preseason and locked up the job.

After a slow start in the season opener at Washington (15 carries for 31 yards) Jones has averaged 113.7 yards on the ground over the last six games, which includes going for more than 130 yards on three occasions. He has accounted for 43.0 percent of the total offense and 35.2 percent of the team's first downs. He has six touchdowns, while the next closest teammates have two.

Jones is on pace to carry the ball 356 times for 1,637 yards and 14 touchdowns, all of which would dwarf his previous bests.

Jones is averaging 4.6 yards per carry and already has five runs of more than 20 yards, which is even more impressive considering the lack of respect around the league for the passing game.

The outlook seems bright for Jones, but the problem is he's starting to show chinks in the armor.

Although Jones has gutted it out the past three weeks playing with a sprained knee, he now has bruised ribs to add to his list of injuries.

Carrying the ball 22 times a game will test your body. The last Bear running back to even crack the 300-carry barrier was Walter Payton in 1986. Still the greatest running back in NFL history only finished with more than 350 rushes in a season twice in 13 years and he only missed one game over his entire career.

The point is Benson needs to be involved more as the season progress or Jones' chances of finishing the season will diminish greatly. It's not only about keeping Jones on the field from week to week, but allowing him to be productive when he does touch the ball.

As important as he is to the offense, losing him would be much more serious than cutting back on his workload.

The chances of the Bears playing postseason football have increased greatly because of what Jones has been able to do for the offense. If he weren't available in January then it would spell an early exit from the postseason.

Benson has just 13 carries over the last five games. It's time for his role to increase one way or another. Either the coaching staff starts distributing the ball in the backfield or they will have to give it to Benson out of necessity because Jones will be the one on the sidelines watching.

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