New Bucs RB set to move forward
By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
St. Petersburg Times
published June 20, 2003
TAMPA - One way or the other, the Bucs seem destined to have a former Cardinals running back carry the ball the season.
One way or the other, the Super Bowl champions seem determined to get something from a bruising back with bulging biceps and bizarre baggage.
As troubled starter Michael Pittman faced arraignment on felony assault charges in Phoenix on Thursday, the man who has a chance to take his place began the process of learning Jon Gruden's complicated system.
Thomas Jones, acquired Friday in a trade with Arizona for second-year receiver Marquise Walker, completed his third morning of workouts and said he is eager to get his hands on the ball and see what he can do in Gruden's offense.
"I think I'm going to have a lot more opportunities to get to the perimeter and get outside," Jones said. "A lot of times in Arizona I was running up the middle every single play and defenses had a lot of chances to gang up on me and put eight or nine guys in the box.
"It's very hard to run in situations like that. Definitely, I feel like this offense is good for my abilities."
The Bucs agree but aren't ready to hand Jones, a 5-10, 230-pound mass of muscle, the starting position whether Pittman is around or not.
"There's opportunity to compete," running backs coach Kirby Wilson said. "If he comes in, understands that the job is wide open and says "I will compete, whether Michael Pittman is here or not,' then that's his window of opportunity.
"We'll know once training camp begins, when we put the pads on and begin the live contact and the live run reads. We'll see how his ability to absorb all the information he would have gathered over the next few weeks translates to the field."
Gruden said Jones, who has played in 39 games with 15 starts and rushed for 1,264 yards, will get a chance to prove himself.
"He's a thick and quick guy," Gruden said. "I don't know where they grow arms on these guys in Arizona, but he is a compact, physical-looking guy. It's still too early to tell, but he has some naturalness to him. He's a quick study and we think he has some unique running skills that should make things real interesting (come training camp)."
Though not as problematic as Pittman's, Jones comes to the Bucs with an eventful past.
The seventh overall pick in the 2000 draft out of Virginia was supposed to be the answer to Arizona's running woes. But from the onset, Jones struggled.
"Arizona, at the time, was one of the worst teams in the league," Jones said. "The offensive line was young when I first got there. Our coaches were getting shuffled around. Head coaches were getting fired, so it was a weird situation my rookie year."
Things never really improved. During his first two seasons, Jones, 24, twice lost his starting job to Pittman. Then, with Pittman in Tampa, Jones entered the 2002 season with a clean slate and a chance to pave his own way. But he struggled through ankle and hand injuries and lost the starting position to Marcel Shipp.
"That's life," he said. "Sometimes things don't go your way and you just have to fight back. You just keep fighting until you get to the point where you want to be. ... Obviously I wasn't the seventh pick in the draft for nothing. I've been successful in football since I was 8 or 9 years old. I know I have the talent and ability to make plays."
Jones' relationship with his former employers continued to erode and bottomed out toward the end of the season when he told the team he broke his hand on a table while reaching for the answering machine. Publicly, the Cardinals accepted the story, but Jones was placed on the injured reserve list for nonfootball injuries and was not paid for the final five games.
"You can't make everyone believe you," Jones said. "All you can do is tell the truth and go about your business hoping everything works out. It was (a freak accident). A lot of people don't believe me."
Labeled a malcontent and underachiever, Jones' days with Arizona clearly were over when the team acquired veteran Emmitt Smith in March. On the trading block since, Jones views the trade to the Bucs as a new beginning.
"We get paid a lot of money to take criticism," he said. "We get paid a lot of money to get blamed for a lot of different things, even if they are not our fault. We just have to be man enough to accept it and move on."