It may sound strange that the organization would say goodbye to the only member of its offense who made any significant contribution in Super Bowl XLI, but that could be the case. Jones paced the club with 1,210 rushing yards in 2006 and become the first Bear since Neal Anderson in 1989-90 to post back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns, plus he ran for 301 more in three postseason games. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry, caught 36 passes out of the backfield, and is universally loved by his teammates in the locker room.
But in today's NFL, none of that matters as much as it should.
With salaries escalating year after year but teams still needing to pinch every penny in order to survive in the salary cap system, the finances of the game play a bigger role than ever. The Bears selected Cedric Benson with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft and signed him to a contract guaranteeing him $17 million, so one way or another, he is the future of the running game in the Windy City. Jones has been a relative bargain after signing a four-year, $10 million contract before the 2004 season, but the team may no longer have any use for him.
Jones is on the books for about $2.23 million next season, money the team could use to sign draft picks, court free agents, and possibly lock up recently-franchised Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs for the long-term.
But even more important than the financial implications is the fact that it's time for Benson to spread his wings. Historically, running back is the easiest position to make an immediate impact from the college game to the pros. Carnell 'Cadillac' Williams of the Buccaneers rushed for 1,178 as a rookie in 2005 and Joseph Addai of the Colts racked up 1,081 as a first-year player this past season, and neither of them was taken as high or given as much money as Benson.
Nevertheless, the Bears have brought Benson along at a snail's pace largely because Jones – somewhat unexpectedly – has been such a productive player. It's quite possible that GM Jerry Angelo never would have drafted Benson in the first place had he realized he was going to get 2,545 yards on the ground out of Jones the last two years. Remember, it wasn't too long ago that the former Virginia Cavalier was considered a complete bust after being taken No. 7 overall by Arizona in 2000.
Benson only played nine games as a rookie because of injury and totaled a very modest 272 yards on 67 attempts. But he started to look more and more like an NFL tailback this past year, posting 647 yards and scoring six touchdowns in a reserve role while showing remarkable improvement with each passing week. And although he did lose a fumble on his first carry of the Super Bowl, he had 165 touches in the regular season without putting the ball on the ground once – more than any other player in the league.
It's no secret that Jones and Benson are far from best friends. Although the animosity between the two seems to have leveled off, they won't be exchanging Christmas cards any time soon. Still, the competition between them was very good for the offense in 2006 and probably pushed them to be the best they can be. Jones was constantly looking over his shoulder because he knows the front office wants to see Benson succeed. Likewise, Benson had to make the most of his limited attempts because Jones earned the starting gig and did nothing to merit losing it.
Offensive coordinator Ron Turner did an admirable job getting Jones and Benson as many carries as he could to keep them both happy, but a similar system in 2007 might be asking for trouble. Jones deserves to be the starting tailback, but that may not be possible in Chicago anymore. Benson simply can not be asked to take a backup role any longer, and Jones certainly won't take kindly to any kind of demotion. Benson will be 24 years old next season, while Jones will be 29. Jones has also been given 1,125 more carries in his NFL career, and history has proven that most tailbacks only have so many rushes in them before they completely break down, e.g. Eddie George, Terrell Davis, Rodney Hampton, and countless others.
Surely there are teams out there that could use a proven running back, so it would behoove Angelo to see if he can find a suitor for Jones and get something in return. Tiki Barber is hanging up his spikes, so the Giants might be interested since they don't appear to have his replacement currently on the roster aside from short-yard specialist Brandon Jacobs. The Jets struggled to run the ball this past season without Curtis Martin, and the three-headed monster of Leon Washington, Kevan Barlow, and Cedric Houston doesn't scare anyone.
If Angelo can alleviate himself of another potential Jones-Benson headache next season and pick up a third- or fourth-rounder in the process, he should jump at the opportunity considering his need for depth at safety, tight end, and along the offensive line.
And even if he can't orchestrate a trade, cutting Jones would improve the team's salary cap situation.
Jones is a solid runner, an emotional leader, and a fan favorite amongst Bears fans. Does he deserve to be shown the door like this? Absolutely not.
That being said, Benson is a bruising bulldozer with a world of potential who might turn out to be twice the tailback Jones could ever be. He has become a better receiver, a better blocker, and a better teammate than when he first arrived in Chicago. And instead of sitting around counting that $17 million that he coming to him whether he plays or not, he's begging for the opportunity to show what he can do with 20-25 carries a game and earn every penny.
Jones deserves better, but just like your mother taught you, life isn't always fair in today's NFL.