- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2007

MIAMI BEACH — Even after posting a career-high 1,335 yards and nine touchdowns and helping the Chicago Bears to an 11-5 record last season, Thomas Jones thought he knew the realities of his situation.

The Bears were going to trade him or bench him.

So Jones reacted like most talented — and proud — players. He skipped the Bears’ offseason workouts. He hired a new agent to secure his future. And he worried about having to play for a fourth team in his short NFL career.

“I believed in my abilities and never lost [hope] in my abilities and what I could do for a football team,” Jones said.

But then a funny thing happened.

The hand-picked starter, former first-round pick Cedric Benson, hurt his shoulder.

The discarded producer, Jones, overcame a late July hamstring injury and assumed the starting role, which he never relinquished. He will make his 19th start for the Bears on Sunday in Super Bowl XLI against the Indianapolis Colts.

Jones rushed for 1,210 yards in the regular season and helped clinch the NFC Championship with a 123-yard, two-touchdown performance against New Orleans.

As the Bears have discovered, sometimes the best trades are the ones not made. Indianapolis, ironically, was interested in Jones before the Bears asked for a first-day draft pick and the Colts instead chose Joseph Addai. Before Benson’s injury, Jones’ name was linked in talks with Denver for holdout receiver Ashley Lelie.

“I was coming off a big season so I knew what I meant to this offense and this team,” Jones said yesterday afternoon at Miami Beach Convention Center. “It was an unfortunate situation [during the offseason] but once I got to camp, it was all football and I threw the other things out the window. I didn’t get caught up in what everybody was talking about.”

Had the Bears dealt Jones, he wouldn’t be talking about playing in his first Super Bowl.

“I think you need at least two good running backs to make it through a season, especially when you’re a running football team,” coach Lovie Smith said. “We get off the plane running the football so those backs take a lot of punishment. We drafted Cedric Benson to go along with Thomas Jones.”

The Bears’ 503 rush attempts ranked fifth in the NFL. Although Chicago was 15th in rushing average (119.9 yards a game), it was Jones who would take hard hits in the second half when the Bears were leading by multiple touchdowns and didn’t want quarterback Rex Grossman taking undue chances.

Jones had 296 carries during the season, but only once did he have more than 24 attempts in a game. Benson contributed 157 carries.

“That’s been good for our team,” Jones said of the balance. “It’s kept me fresh and gives us a nice 1-2 punch. We compliment each other the way we run. We have different styles.”

Jones’ style, according to himself: “I like to accelerate through the hole. Depending on the play, I have a two-way go. I’m kind of shifty so if I don’t see a hole front-side I’m quick to cut back. The way our offense is set up, there’s a nice mixture of power plays, misdirection plays and zone plays. I think I run all three kinds really well.”

Benson’s style, according to Jones: “He’s a downhill bruiser. He’ll take a guy head-on most of the time and his main thing is punishing guys. He intimidates defensive backs.”

To reach the pinnacle of his career, Jones had to endure several lean years. Following a record-setting career at Powell Valley High School in Big Stone Gap, Va., Jones attended Virginia, where he gained 3,998 yards. He was drafted seventh overall by Arizona in 2000.

Cue the infamous Cardinals Curse.

For two seasons, Jones was stuck behind Michael Pittman and had 112 carries each year. In 2002, injuries limited him to nine games and he was traded to Tampa Bay.

Following a season with the Buccaneers in which he was again stuck behind Pittman, Jones became a free agent. The Bears, though, saw something and signed him to a four-year, $10 million contract before the 2004 season. After experiencing losing seasons in each of his first five NFL campaigns, Jones has helped the Bears to consecutive division titles.

“His work ethic is tremendous,” center Olin Kreutz said. “He’s always in the weight room and he’s always watching and studying film. He sees stuff and tells us and also tells us how he wants a play blocked.”

One good thing about his year with the Buccaneers was that Jones, the kid from coal country, became enamored with the ocean and Florida. He has a home in the Miami area and 14 family members will be staying there this week, including his parents, Betty and Thomas Sr., who both worked in the mines of southwest Virginia. His parents provided support for Jones and his six siblings as kids. Now they provide the inspiration.

“I wouldn’t want to do that,” Jones said of his parents’ careers. “Growing up, that was the norm so I didn’t think about it as much. As I got older and moved away, I realized that my mom was the only woman working in the mines and she did that for 19 years.

“When I think about those types of situations when I was going through things in Arizona or in Chicago, I think about that and how hard my parents had it and how they overcame. That’s my motivation.”

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