On the John
Originally completed on August 27, 2006
The Chicago Bears have a running back problem. Or is it two problems? Two backs, two problems. Seems reasonable. On the other hand, much of the problem seems to stem not so much from the two backs, but rather from the other players—what will be, after final cuts, the remaining 51 players on the roster. Forget the coaches, media, and fans for now. For now, this one’s on the players. All of them. And if that’s the case, then the Bears actually have one big problem. One team, one problem.
On the first day of free agency in 2004, the Bears signed Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Thomas Jones to a four year deal. The line on Jones: drafted seventh overall in 2000…career numbers through 2003: 1891 yards rushing, 3.8 yards per carry, 12 touchdowns, two teams…single season highs: 627 yards rushing with a 4.6 YPC in 2003, and five touchdowns in 2001. Granted, his rush yards increased every season of his career, but as a guy only four years removed from being a top ten pick, he was a disappointment.
Nevertheless, the Bears showed him love (i.e. money), by scooping him up early. He was now a star, the new running back for the franchise that has defined the term.
The 2004 season? 948 yards rushing on 240 carries and seven scores. A career year for Jones, as his improvement continued, but by no means the type of season that leads a team to the Super Bowl.
Flash forward to the 2005 draft. The Bears are sitting on the fourth pick. Wideouts Mike Williams and Troy Williamson are both on the board, as are backs Cedric Benson and Cadillac Williams. The Bears go with Benson, the workhorse from Texas. Obviously the team did not feel entirely confident with Jones. Or they made a mistake. Either way, you can hardly hold Cedric Benson accountable for being drafted.
You can, however, blame Benson for holding out for 36 days during contract negotiations for his rookie year, even though he was not the first football player—or first rook—to hold out for more loot. A motivated Jones, presumably angered by his team’s decision to draft another RB at number four, saw the opportunity in front of him and took full advantage. By the time Benson signed, Jones was the starter.
So Jones started running. Boy, did he ever. 1,335 yards—the most in Bears history by anyone not named Payton—and nine touchdowns. Meanwhile, Benson’s playing time was scarce, and just when he was starting to Get It Going—79 on 14 carries against the Saints, 50 yards on 12 carries against San Fran a week later—a leg injury vs. the 49ers knocked him out until the last game of the season. So TJ leads the Bears to a division championship, and Benson sits patiently. Waiting.
Training camp, 2006. Now it is Jones who is sitting. Sitting himself, that is, in hopes for a better contract. He wants more Respect, as it were. Benson is promoted. And then Benson is injured, and Jones comes to camp, and Jones is promoted. And then, in the second preseason game, an injured Benson breaks a team rule by leaving the sideline in the middle of the game. Does anyone notice? Yes, his teammates. And they turn him in. And it becomes a national story, and now it is a problem. One team, one problem.
I cannot speculate as to whether those who reported Benson’s absence would have done so with Jones as well. Nor I can speculate as to whether Jones or another veteran would have left the sidelines. However, it seems likely that, while clearly in the wrong, Benson’s indiscretion was reported not out of a sense of moral duty, but rather out of spite. All reports indicate that Jones is very popular with his teammates, and that Benson, in turn, is not. Why? Because his holdout was deemed selfish? Perhaps. But I’d imagine that they simply do not like seeing the punk kid with the big dough usurping the job of the man who led them to a division title. Simple as that.
And neither do I…which is exactly the reason why I was reticent to pull for Jones when he first signed. He was, after all, budding in on a clear-cut starter, a man who had won fans in his three seasons in Chicago, putting up two one-thousand yard seasons in those three years, winning Rookie of the Year honors in 2001, the same year that he led Your Chicago Bears to a division championship. I am speaking about Anthony Thomas, the A-Train, the man whom Chicago had grown to love.
Think I’m wrong? Let’s go back to the disappointing season of 2004. TJ was named starter, and indeed he started strong, with a particularly strong performance in a win over Green Bay in Week 2. But after seven weeks, the Bears were 1-5, and Jones was injured. In came Train, who ripped off 280 yards on 82 carries and two scores over the next three games, leading the Bears to three straight victories. The A-Train was back…but not really, as Jones returned, and Train was benched—buried there—and when we next heard his name he had been cut, replaced by Benson’s young legs and strong chest and huge bottom line. And then Benson held out, and Jones took hold, and we fans swept Jones up into our arms as if he was Payton or Sayers or Nagurski, or, yes, even Anthony Thomas, though in a decidedly lower rung. But still, even Thomas was just another one of the guys. Part of the crew, as Jones had become. A true Chicago Bear.
And now it is Benson who has earned our ire, though he’s not concerned with ours, nor should he be. It’s his teammates’ that concerns him. And Jones is one of them, though he’s really more concerned with losing his starting job, a job which he feels is rightfully his, and with good reason. He earned it…a year ago. But this is a new season, and I suspect that what worries Jones the most is not that his coaches will hand over his starting job to Benson, but rather that Benson will succeed, and that the Bears will win, and that his teammates will, well, not forget about him, but certainly learn to go into battle without him.
That’s the key one, right there. Right now, Jones has the full support of his teammates. Benson does not. But Jones must know as well as I or anybody else who watches football that Benson is only one successful season away from being to the Bears what Jones was to them a year ago, what Anthony Thomas was from 2001-2003. Everybody wants to feel needed, and with loads of money and years already allocated to Benson, the Bears’ brass needs him to succeed in order for their investment to pan out. As for the other 51 guys? They just need one good running back to help them win. Not Benson or Jones per-se. Just one good running back.
For all of the talk that goes on about “being professionals,” there are, obviously, personal bonds that form. However, the strongest bond is winning. It is, like Vince Lombardi once said, “the only thing,” as in the only thing that matters, only thing that anyone involved really cares about, the ultimate bottom line. More than money, more than friendship, more than respect, athletics, particularly professional athletics, are about winning. If the Bears allow personal differences to interfere with that bottom line—personal differences that are, in fact, not personal at all—then they really do have a problem. One, by my count.
Copyright 2006, jm silverstein
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