Matt Jones has a problem to which anyone who has failed young can relate; people think he’s older than he is. For the record, Jones is 26. He’s not sick. He hasn’t bounced from team to team. He’s played four seasons, and has missed one year due to disciplinary issues. His last season was his best as a pro, and in just 12 games Jones had career highs in receptions (65) and yards (761), putting up a pace that, over a 16 game season, would have given him over 1000 yards. He stands 6’6”, weighs in at 218 pounds, and was last measured running the 40-yard dash, the standard for receiver speed, a test usually dominated by mighty mice at WR, in a stunning 4.37 seconds. He is an inch taller, and 2/100ths of a second slower than Calvin Johnson, easily one of the top three receivers in the league.
He’s also temperamental to his own detriment, has horrible judgment when it comes to illegal substances, and has always had trouble matching his gifts to the circumstances in which he has found himself. He is, even in the most optimistic light, a head case.
But again, he’s 26. There are just two receivers in the top ten that are more than a year younger than Jones (Steve Smith and Sidney Rice are the trivia answers). Fine, he’s had problems realizing his incredible potential (though I would argue he was on his way there in 2008), but isn’t it worth it for a team, if not the league as a product, to see if this kind of undeniable, unique talent can fully express itself on the field? And if he’s too old to bring it all together with a second chance, finally getting his potential to function in his reality, then what the hell are the rest of us doing? That first dream job out of college that turned out to be a bust? The first creation you really cared about that was resoundingly panned? That first big relationship that ended in a gut wrenching train wreck? You can disapprove of the mess Jones’s bad judgment and worse attitude have made of his opportunities to this point; I do, too. But I’m pulling for Matt Jones, because there’s a part of me that gets Matt Jones, that wishes him the same second and third chances that I’ve gotten and will likely need again. I have to believe that if everybody is honest, we all kind of get Matt Jones.
All of that is to say that I am absolutely thrilled that Matt Jones is going into training camp as a Cincinnati Bengal. I’ve made no secret of my soft spot for Matt Jones, and this year’s Bengals team was as good a story as you’ll find in the league. Marvin Lewis and Mike Brown, who were raked over the coals for years (and deservedly so) for placing too much responsibility on youth and personally flawed veterans, finally saw their youth mature and rein in their more troublesome veterans. The result was a team that, prior to the tragic death of physically talented and personally troubled receiver Chris Henry, had the talent to go toe-to-toe with any of its peers and the sort of chip on its shoulder that made it a scary competitor. The highlight of all of this was RB Cedric Benson, who had been unceremoniously dumped from Chicago and was all but blackballed from football before a desperate Bengals squad brought him in to kick his tires. Last year, Benson finished with the 8th most rushing yardage in the league, and was the centerpiece of a Bengals offense that was once entirely based on streaky passer Carson Palmer.
In Benson, we see an example of what the Bengals, and I, hope can become of Matt Jones. Jones represents the sort of big, athletic target that the Bengals need from their second or third option, creating a matchup nightmare when he’s performing at full speed (as he was in his last NFL season). Furthermore, with no other teams remotely interested, he has arrived at his last opportunity for redemption. For a receiver with his physical gifts, this could mean everything (examples: Moss in New England, Edwards in New York…). Meanwhile, he also finds himself paired with a quarterback that Jacksonville can only dream about, with an offense that isn’t afraid to open up vertically and a coaching staff that isn’t too lazy to develop offensive talent (the verdict was in on Del Rio two years ago…). If Cincinnati can do what they did with Cedric Benson (and on another note, they deserve all the credit in the world for how they were helping Chris Henry progress before his death), there’s no reason that Matt Jones, arguably the most talented project player they’ve taken in so far, can’t also have his second, more important act take place in orange and black.
PS: And by the way, yes, I've read the report. Take into account the following: coaches ALWAYS bristle when the front office forces players into their roster, regardless of whether it's a good move or not, and they NEVER like seeing a physically gifted player who will likely replace a personal project coming into camp. "I don't care how fast his 40 time is" reminds me of an ostrich with his head in the sand. Consider me unfazed.