After Will Ferrell and Tracy Morgan had left, the 2004 SNL season rolled around and the biggest draw left in the cast was Jimmy Fallon. Most longtime SNL fans never really warmed up to Fallon during his stint on the show, and this was their worst nightmare. They just knew that this goofy kid that never seemed comfortable and giggled his way through any good material was going to ruin everything…and then he didn’t. The show leaned on him for everything he could do, and he pulled out all the Nick Burns and Barry Gibb Talk Show and Gap Clerk that he could, and to everyone’s surprise he managed to carry the show on his back for a season. It wasn’t amazing, but it wasn’t bad either, and it was what the show needed when it needed it. Anyone who was a fan of SNL at the time has to admit that as much as Jimmy Fallon may have never really suited their taste, he did a respectable job with the show during the time he was trusted with it. All of that is to say the following: Thomas Jones deserved more credit than I gave him as a Jet.
That isn’t to say that Jones wasn’t infuriating at times, particularly when he was piling up statistics and the team was winning. I’ve never seen a back with a worse grasp of his gifts. Jones, a natural power back with a nose for quickly finding his way through holes and punishing middle defenders, had an inexplicable penchant for dancing in the backfield. This tactic let to useless lateral moves that could generously be described as gradual, and frequently turned an otherwise consistent offensive tool into a novelty act. He had an equally frustrating tendency to disappear during the Brett Favre year, when he was racking up yardage anytime except for when it was most needed. Worse still for Jones was his joining the team the year after the 2006 playoff run, when offensive creativity in spite of the lack of a back of his caliber paved the way to the postseason. By contrast, Jones’s first year, with its over reliance on the back and lack of real offensive line strength, felt like an ugly retread of Herm Edwards at his worst, taking a system and forcing it into inert tradition simply because it seemed like the safe thing to do, making the team the Jay Leno of offenses (yes, I’ve been watching too much late night television). It was that year, in fact, that laid the foundation for my troubled relationship to the man who had been thrust into the center of our offense.
Yet while Jones did have his flaws, maybe I was too busy looking for what he wasn’t to see what he was. He didn’t ask to be the focus of the offense in 2007; Mangini just threw him there because he wasn’t clever enough to think of anything else. His disappearances in 2008 could just have easily been attributed to a coaching staff desperate for populist appeal, going to their celebrity quarterback instead of a running back that had proven he could get the job done (his 4.5 yards per carry led him to an AFC rushing title, yet the team went 9-7). He never asked to take touches away from Leon Washington (always the more exciting player) or Shonn Greene (basically a younger version of himself), but the team felt compelled to make him into the centerpiece they were paying him to be. To his credit, Jones did exactly what was asked of him. In the abysmal 2007 campaign, Jones still managed 1119 yards, good for 10th in the league. In 2008, on 20 fewer touches, he put up an even more impressive year. Is it fair to blame him for never being anything more than exactly what the team asked him to be when the team essentially asked him to be their rock on offense? Looking back, I felt like I was the only one who saw how Jones’s steady, unchanging nature was holding the team back; now I see less prophet and more drunken little league dad in those declarations, which missed what Jones was accomplishing every week.
This past year, with a rookie quarterback, no clear number one receiver for half of the year, and a brand new defensive scheme in place, Jones was once again asked to be the lead dog on our offense. I’m sure he knew that a lot of fans would hate him for it, with his boring, up the gut runs and his making bizarre footwork decisions in the backfield from time to time taking away from Mark Sanchez’s development as a passer or Shonn Greene’s development as a back or further removing Leon Washington as a dynamic offensive threat (something a broken leg would later accomplish). Yet Jones quietly carried the load with the same tempered rhythm that defined his tenure with the Jets, and he put up a career year in yardage. I hadn’t realized that until the season was over, that Jones had, in a year where the team was preparing to phase him out as their offensive leader, compiled his most impressive individual achievements in yardage (and his 4.2 yards per carry on a career high 331 carries is also a ridiculously impressive number at his age). That was the way it went with my perspective on Thomas Jones; somehow, it felt like he should be doing something different. Only in retrospect do I really appreciate what he did, as opposed to what he didn’t do. And so as he leaves the team, I can look back on his career and say that while I honestly never warmed up to his role on the Jets, that had more to do with me than with him, and I can say that when he was trusted with my team, he did what he was asked to do. We should all be so well remembered.