The Case for Thomas Jones

The Chicago Bears asked an awful lot of their starting tailback last season, and in almost every critical category, Thomas Jones delivered each and every Sunday.

Even with no semblance of a passing game to alleviate some of the pressure off his broad shoulders, Thomas Jones carried the ball a career-high 314 times for a career-best 1,335 yards and scored nine touchdowns in the process.

Then why, pray tell, is everyone in charge up at Halas Hall so eager to replace him?

Welcome to the 21st Century National Football League, where a player's salary cap numbers on the balance sheet are every bit as important as the statistical numbers he accumulates on the gridiron. The Bears drafted Cedric Benson, a workhorse running back out of Texas, with the #4 overall selection in the 2005 draft, and the McCaskey family didn't sign him to a $35 million contract to exchange barbecue tips. So even though Jones has been one of the more reliable and productive runners in the league the last two seasons, Bears brass is now looking for every excuse to give the ball to Benson 20 times a game.

To cut to the chase, Jones could not have picked a worse time to bark about being underpaid, skip voluntary workouts, and threaten to hold out of training camp. In his defense, he has since softened his stance and has told the team he will arrive in Bourbonnais on time when players report on Wednesday.

Even though he averaged more yards per carry last season (4.3) than two-time rushing champ Edgerrin James (4.2) and has caught more passes out of the backfield the last two years (82) than reigning MVP Shaun Alexander has the last three (80), Jones is still getting paid like a journeyman. This past March, James signed a four-year, $30 million contract to bolt Indianapolis for Arizona, while Alexander inked an eight-year, $62 million deal to remain in Seattle. Jones is scheduled to make $2.25 million in base salary for 2006 and is actually signed through next season.

True, since they are not guaranteed, NFL contracts contain more fuzzy math than John Daly's last trip to Las Vegas. Nevertheless, those eight-figure signing bonuses James and Alexander received are already accumulating interest in their respective bank accounts. Even though they are elite players with longer track records of success at the highest level, it's not hard to appreciate Jones's point of view. Theoretically, he could get cut tomorrow and not receive another dime from the Bears.

His biggest problem? Not the whispers he used to hear about being a first-round flop, not the wear and tear on his body, not even the financial commitment the Bears have to Benson. It's the position he plays.

Running back is the most disposable position in football and arguably the most replaceable in all of sports. They take a brutal beating week after week, are somewhat dependent on a capable offensive line and proficient passing attack, and plainly speaking, there are just so many of them out there. The best athletes on every Pop Warner football field in this country aren't playing nose guard. They're all tailbacks.

Lamar Gordon, James Jackson, and Jonathan Wells are relatively young runners who have been starters in the NFL at one time or another. What else do they have in common? They're all currently unemployed.

That's not to say Jones doesn't have a legitimate gripe. He is a better player than his current contract indicates. And considering what they had to go through during the Rashaan Salaam and Curtis Enis catastrophes, many Bears fans are sympathetic to his plight. If he were a gun-slinging quarterback or a lockdown cover corner, his demands might be taken more seriously. But with Benson foaming at the mouth for more action and 35 million reasons for head coach Lovie Smith to put the former Longhorn atop the depth chart, Jones is bluffing against a full house.

You think Britney Spears could have held out for more money back when she was a Mouseketeer? Not a chance. There were a million Christina Aguileras ready to take her place.

The two top rushing offenses in the NFL last season were Atlanta and Denver. Despite what you might think, neither team employed a true franchise running back. Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett provided a lightning-and-thunder approach for the Falcons (along with Michael Vick's nimble feet, of course) and Mike Anderson's bruising style was complemented by Tatum Bell's big-play ability for the Broncos. Pittsburgh won Super Bowl XL with Willie Parker operating between the 20's and Jerome Bettis getting most of the action in the red zone.

In other words, the precedent has already been set for the Bears to justify a two-pronged Jones-Benson approach for the 2006 season, with Benson eventually emerging as The Guy and Jones being relegated to a backup role. Even if Jones is the better player right now (he is) and the one who actually deserves the bigger paycheck (he does), he is in no place to negotiate. Benson is too talented, too hungry, and perhaps most importantly to the suits in the owner's box, making too much money.

Although he will be 28 years old on opening day against rival Green Bay, in terms of the amount of carries he has logged in his career to date, Jones will still be a relatively young 28. But even if he does hold off a furious charge from Benson and leads the new Monsters of the Midway to another NFC North title, the odds of him getting the raise he no doubt deserves from the Bears are not in his favor.

If you want to know why, go see a Pop Warner football game one weekend this fall in your town and check out the sweet moves on the youngster playing tailback.


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