Running Back Debate Getting More Complicated

Head coach Lovie Smith has talked in circles about his "starting rotation" at the tailback position ever since the beginning of training camp, but with his top two horses both missing significant time with injury, the debate has only spawned more questions. With Thomas Jones back in the fold and Cedric Benson expected to miss the rest of the preseason, Smith's mettle will be challenged.

Head coach Lovie Smith has been dancing around all the depth chart questions ever since training camp gathered in Bourbonnais, but when he finally cleared away the cobwebs, it was apparent that Cedric Benson was his starter at tailback. With Thomas Jones missing the start of camp with a hamstring injury, it was much easier to justify the benching of last season's most productive offensive weapon.

But with Benson still on the shelf with a sprained shoulder and Jones now operating with the first unit in practice again, Smith's ability to be loyal to the players who participated in mini camp and OTAs will be tested.

It took a grand total of two days for All Pro Lance Briggs to win back his starting spot at weakside linebacker, but his replacement, Leon Joe, wasn't a former high first-round pick with a mammoth contract on the books. Such is the case with Benson and his bid to supplant Jones as the #1 option in the backfield.

"I'm excited about getting out there," the normally media-averse Jones said after practice Monday. "I wanted to come out and do some things today. I'm sure tomorrow will be a better day, and I'll get better as the week goes along. So, I'm definitely happy about being back."

When asked how he feels about his teammates supporting him as the starter on this team, Jones deflected those comments to some degree. "I don't even pay attention to that," he said. "We're all on the same team and trying to accomplish the same goal. No, I don't really pay attention to who's on what side and all that. I worry about what I can do."

Benson will in all likelihood miss the remainder of the preseason, but the second-year man seems anxious to get out there and play at least one exhibition game. "For me personally," he said, "I thought it would be good. Just to smooth out the rough edges. But I didn't play in (any) preseason games last year, and I had a couple good runs."

The one-on-one running back competition never really materialized because of their respective injuries, but Benson seems up to the challenge once both he and Jones are running at full steam again. "I know Thomas had an article where he was saying he felt like a lot of things weren't fair," he said very candidly. "He kind of got pushed to the side because of whatever. But with things the way they are now, with him back in there, and then I come back and I get the starting job, then you can't say (anything) was unfair."

Wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad may not have realized it at the time, but in the locker room before practice on Monday, the veteran gave an indication as to whom he supports in this whirling running back derby.

"Our goal is to win games," he said. "So if we're up by a lot of points, don't look for an aerial display. I'm going to be honest with you. You're going to get a heavy dose of Thomas Jones in your face."

Notice he didn't say Cedric Benson. He didn't even say Thomas Jones OR Cedric Benson. He said Thomas Jones.

The more you read into what the players are saying in the locker room, the more you have to believe that Jones is their choice to win the job that he perhaps never should have lost in the first place.

JC


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