Jones finally get return on hard work

Signed or released seven different times by Tampa Bay, kickoff and punt returner Mark Jones seems to have finally found a place with the Bucs, if his play is any indication. He's coming off the best game of his career last week against St. Louis.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers can't seem to do without wide receiver and return man Mark Jones — though they've certainly tried.

The Buccaneers have signed or released Jones on seven different occasions since the Buccaneers selected him in the seventh round of the 2004 NFL Draft.

Plays like his returns on Sunday against St. Louis might allow Jones to finally stick around for a while.

Jones notched career-high returns of 36 yards (kickoffs) and 35 yards (punt) against the Rams, and the Buccaneers used both returns to set up touchdowns.

It's a great development for the Buccaneers, who have struggled for years to find a big-play threat on both punts and kickoffs. Jones had chances to fill that role in the past. But it now appears that the four-year vet is playing his best football and is more capable of delivering those game-changing plays.

"It's been a while since we've exploded up the field and made that kind of positive yardage in our return game," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said.

After two games Jones is averaging 36.0 yards per kickoff return (Jones has two returns, both for 36 yards) and 15.0 yards per punt return. He came close to breaking the Buccaneers' first kickoff return for a touchdown in team history against the Rams. If Jones qualified for the NFL rankings, he would be in the Top 10 in both.

It appears at least early this season that Jones is a more explosive returner, who has a better sense of what creases in coverage will help him create big plays.

"He's played really well since he's been back," Bucs special teams coach Richard Bisaccia said. "We're glad he's back."

And to think the Bucs let Jones go after the end of the preseason.

Jones and Chad Owens competed during the preseason to be the primary punt and kickoff returner. Gruden made it clear he wanted someone to step up and assume both roles.

Jones had little experience as a kickoff returner, but he spent the offseason and preseason learning the nuances.

And it paid off. Jones led the Buccaneers in kickoff returns with a 31.5-yard average. He also pitched in a 7.5-yard average on punt returns.

After the Bucs cut Owens after the third preseason game, Jones appeared to have the job locked up.

It didn't work out that way. The Buccaneers made Jones one of their final cuts.

"It was kind of left with some uncertainty," Jones said. "They weren't sure just yet (if they wanted to re-sign me) and I respected that. All I could do was stay in shape and be ready for the call."

Jones is used to it, especially when it comes to Tampa Bay. Jones spent 2004 with the New York Giants before returning to Tampa Bay in 2005. He averaged 9.6 yards per punt return in 2005, but his average dropped to 7.8 in 2006 due to injuries. The injuries, in fact, led the Bucs to cut Jones on Nov. 13 of last year, but then re-sign him on Dec. 6.

It seemed Jones spent as much time on speed dial with general manager Bruce Allen has he did on the field. It frustrated him, Jones said, but he understood the business end of the game. He said before training camp this year that he cleared his head and chose to focus more on his faith than on making the team.

The rest, Jones said, would take care of itself.

"I had that mindset in training camp this year," Jones said. "I kept myself filled up (with faith). What happened last year I didn't want to have happen this year."

The faith kept him going and put him in a position to help the Buccaneers on Sunday. On the opening kickoff of the second half, Jones returned the ball 36 yards to the Buccaneers 47. The Bucs then drove to the other end and cashed in with Carnell Williams' 7-yard touchdown run.

Then in the fourth quarter Jones returned a Rams punt 35 yards to the Rams 40, setting up Earnest Graham's second touchdown run of the day.

Jones said the great field position created by his returns makes the play-calling easier for Gruden. The head coach agreed.

"It's huge," Gruden said. "I say it again. When you're an offensive football player or coach — and I've been accused of being more offensive than defensive — you do better when you have the ball repeatedly and in good field position. Last year I think we had 12 possessions all season that started on the other team's side of the field. That was last in the NFL. Mark Jones, in two plays, had a lot to do with the victory."

Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 4-7 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1490-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.

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