Chicago Bears and NFL legend Walter Payton once said that one of the best compliments he received for his play on the field came from former Bears coach and the equally legendary Mike Ditka, who opined that the now-deceased Payton was not only the best running back he ever saw but the best football player, period.
Ditka saw Payton as a football player, not a running back.
That's the way I feel about the Bengals' Adam Jones -- he's a football player. Certainly not on a par with Sweetness, but he's a player.
Jones plays cornerback and he's a return specialist. But, at the advanced NFL age of 31, the tenacious Jones transcends his positions. He doesn't come close to matching Payton's personal character, but Jones similarly offers his all on the football field while playing at a high level, and he does it with an uncompromised passion that sometimes exceeds the limits of good sportsmanship and good sense.
Same thing off the field, where Jones has landed in scuffles, and jail, more times than most people can remember, and certainly more than anybody should be landing in jail. But, not lately.
Lately, and by that I mean just a few years, Jones has kept a lower off-field profile with better behavior and fewer mistakes while still getting into minor dust-ups and saying things before thinking them through - and getting involved in controversial plays like he did Sunday in Oakland, which undermine every good thing he stands for.
But, make no mistake, Adam Jones still is an excellent football player, not necessarily a thug. He is effective and productive despite the fact he was born so long ago that when he arrived the Punk music craze was giving way to Hair Metal, Michael Jackson, the Police, with Flashdance dominating at the box office. The Redskins were the reigning Super Bowl champions in 1983, the year Jones was born.
That's a long time ago!
Jones turns 32 Sept. 30, "old" by NFL standards.
And yet, Jones is still playing football, quite competitively. It's the thing he does best in addition to drawing ire, sideways glances and sometimes fines like the one he just paid -- a total of $35,000 for hitting a defenseless player (then ripping the helmet off Oakland rookie receiver Amari Cooper's head then bashing Cooper's head on his own helmet). It came on a play in Sunday's Bengals season-opening win over the Raiders that drew offsetting penalties, giving Jones a free pass until the NFL levied the fine Wednesday.
It cast a pall over his overall play, but it did not undo his deeds for the defense in Oakland, where the Bengals won for the first time, 33-13. The wondrously talented Cooper, three inches taller and 25 pounds heavier than Jones, was practically invisible Sunday in his NFL debut, a disappearing act owed to Jones' gonzo competitive streak.
Most players who enter the NFL are long gone by age 31. They generally don't stick around long enough to become one of the game's top return men while starting at a young man's defensive position, and having the best game of their Cincinnati career. That was the way Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther characterized Jones' 10-tackle effort against the Raiders, who at one time usually had a roster full of Doberman-types like Jones.
The Bengals have one Doberman. It's Jones. He's a football player first, a highly-paid employee playing a violent sport that rises above kid-play even though it's a game.
Thing is, it's no game to Jones. It's war. It's life itself, played out in metaphor fashion on the football field, an unforgiving place that forces men to defend turf and hit each other. Jones, a wiry strong 5 feet 10 and 180 pounds, is smaller than most of those doing the hitting, yet it is he who dishes out the punishment.
You know what you're like when defending your turf at home (you put up a fence and no-trespassing or no-soliciting signs and say, 'Hey, kid, get out of my yard'). Adam Jones defends his turf while proudly wearing NFL shoulder pads, at long odds, and playing with a watch-dog's mentality -- a one-man Doberman gang with a huge heart, a family to support, and a tightly wound spring inside him with a license to hit.
That's what makes Jones tick, and why his reactions are so quick. It is appropriate. That old Pacman nickname his mother gave him as a child was because the young Jones would run around and change direction seemingly as fast as the video game character Pac-Man. He's still doing it.
But, in June 2008, he decided that he wanted to be known only as Adam Jones (or Mr. Jones), not Adam "Pacman" Jones, in an effort to separate himself from his troubled past.
From time to time, like Sunday with Cooper's wayward helmet, we see Jones do the kinds of things on the field that he used to do all the time. He said Cooper started it, and he was just defending himself and his part of the turf.
The Chargers are coming to town Sunday with another top-flight receiver in Keenan Allen and a quarterback who is a heck of a lot better than what Cincinnati saw in Oakland. The Bengals need to defend their turf. They have their watch-dog. He's a nasty Doberman.
He's Adam Jones, sans the cumbersome Pacman moniker, even though he reminds certain stubborn media and knee-jerk reactionaries to use it when he acts like his old self.
But Adam Jones is a new man with some old habits that are hard to break. He's passionate and full of purpose, with disdain for the fair-catch. He's excitable, and he's extraordinarily talented, especially for his age, which is getting up there for still being on the gridiron. Without those things, he's not the exceptional football player that he's become after being out of the league for transgressions.
It's a minor miracle that he's here and causing a hot fuss.
Like him or not, the fiery, fearless Adam Jones is so much more than what he appears, even when he appears to be hurting his own cause with his in-your-face style. He's a football player, which is saying so much more than the obvious.
Deal with it.