When the Bengals show up for their first offseason workout session on Monday morning, they’ll be greeted by T-shirts in their lockers emblazoned with the words, “Challenge The Moment.”
For a team that has struggled in the postseason and prime time, head coach Marvin Lewis couldn’t have come up with a better logo. But in order for them to respond, he needs his veterans to believe it and he’s got a good start with Adam Jones.
For the first time in his career, he has played all 16 games in back-to-back seasons. Once the poster child on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s post-office wall of player conduct, Jones is in the middle of a three-year deal in a locker room that respects his work ethic and football savvy and on top of a depth chart relied on him during last year’s injury assault on the cornerbacks.
But Jones isn’t kicking back and enjoying the fruits of one of the league’s more remarkable comeback stories. There are still some things to prove. For one thing, he’s starting to bump-and-run with the calendar. He turned 30 last September and he keeps thinking about those full seasons he sat out in 2007 and 2009.
“I’m really 27, 28. Remember, I missed those two years” Jones said last week, “and I’m keeping up my body up doing the same thing. I was a big lifter when I came into the league, then I slacked off and that’s when you get the pulls (muscles) and all that. I’m back lifting a lot. I’m doing hot yoga. The last three weeks I’ve been working out four days a week. Twice a week I do 500 sit-ups. You’ve got to have a strong core. You may see some guys that have a six-pack, an eight-pack, but they don’t have a strong core.”
Lewis is banking on the rest of his veterans having the same kind of hunger despite ending last season on a huge downer. Their third straight loss in the playoffs is as ugly as it gets, a messy 27-10 deal at home to a Chargers team they had beat on the road just 35 days before.
How many more times can this core go to the well? Lewis will find out with guys like Jones,
“I’m looking to start. You know I’ve never considered myself just a nickel corner,” Jones said. “We’ve got three starters on this team. I’m getting in good enough shape so I can start and then get back there four or five times a game (to return punts).”
Only Devin Hester has more touchdowns off punt returns on the active list than Jones by the healthy margin of 13-5. But Jones figures he could cut into the lead with a few more shots. Once Hall got hurt in the sixth game last year and Jones moved into start like he did when Hall got hurt in 2011, special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons virtually took Jones off returns and he only had 11.
So even though it’s a new year, Simmons and Jones continue to needle each other about getting more chances.
“Numbers don’t lie,” Jones said. “When I get back there I make things happen.”
“Well,” Simmons will probably say, “don’t start.”
But Jones, of course, would never say that. He’s coming off the two best seasons of his career and last year he was the Bengals’ highest-rated corner, according to profootballfocus.com. Out of 110 NFL cornerbacks he was rated 29th, just four notches below former teammate and Texans Pro Bowler Johnathan Joseph.
“The past couple of years have obviously been his best work,” Hall said. “It just comes naturally being in the same system, being with the guys. Just playing more football. The thing he can do now is if a young guy came in here, he can explain the whole defense top him. Maybe the first couple of years he could tell him what he could do, but now he can tell you where (safety) Reggie (Nelson) is going to be, what the linebackers are doing, where the blitz is coming from.”
Jones hears the scuttlebutt. He’s hearing the buzz about the age of the Bengals corners and how the Bengals want to take one in the first round at No. 24 two years after taking Alabama’s
“I think we need a corner, but I don’t think it’s the most important priority,” Jones said. “I think Leon will be ready. Same with T. New. Dre. We’ve got a good group of guys. One addition would be cool just for depth, but I don’t think we need to take a corner with a high pick. We’ve got a lot more things we need in here.
“But I’m comfortable with anything,” Jones said. “We’re just looking to win.”
Lewis only has to look at his corners to get an edge. Old? Need a shot of youth? Hall is already doing football drills and even though he won’t get on the field in May and June, all signs are pointing to him being ready for the July 23 start of training camp. Newman would have been back if the Bengals beat the Chargers and went to the AFC Divisional game in New England.
“We’ve had guys that were 28 or 31 that didn’t move as well as Terence does. It’s all relative,” Hall said. “There’s not too many guys on this team you can tell me that move better than (Jones). He’s quicker and faster than most anybody we have at however old he is. He’s just quick and fast a guy like Gio (Bernard) coming in here his rookie year. Age is nothing but a number as they say.”
Jones already has a legion of admirers in locker rooms around the league. One of them, former Bears and Texans safety
“I remember him at West Virginia and running back all those kicks and interceptions. I was saying, ‘Who is that guy?’” recalled Manning, who signed a one-year deal with the Bengals a few weeks ago. “He looks to me with all his knowledge that he can play forever. He seems to me like a guy that never disrespects the game. He respects the game.”
For all the water under the bridge, is it still too soon to attach the term “locker room elder statesman,’ to Adam Jones?
“Whether he likes it or not,” Hall said with a laugh. “He’s one of the cornerstones of this locker room. People might not see that outside the locker room. But people in the equipment room, the training room, and upstairs can see it.”
Age is also experience and that can make you younger. Since he herniated a neck disc during his first Bengals season 2010, Jones has been focused on taking care of his body and learning the tricks of the trade.
“A neck injury. That’s serious now,” Jones said. “When I came in (to the league), I could do things on the field, but I didn’t study. Now, as DBs, we spend watching film of the opponent.”
He even spent some time a couple of days a week at the very public Mercy Hospital Health Complex near his home in Anderson Township. While he worked out with fitness coordinator Michael Newbill, he didn’t mid signing autographs or chatting up the children that came through and recognized No. 24.
“I like running around with those kids,’ Jones said. “They help keep you young.”
That could be another motto for a season the Bengals need some more legs.