|Michael Conroy/Associated Press|
|Maurice Jones-Drew is still the heart and soul of the Jacksonville Jaguars' offense, averaging 4.9 yards per carry.|
"I'm not gonna hold out again," he said with conviction, on his day off Tuesday.
Then, he hedges. It's been a long six months for the NFL's reigning rushing champion. And so when it comes to what's next, Jones-Drew isn't about to back himself into a corner, but he sure does have a few things to get off his chest.
Of a potential 2013 holdout, he continued, "I don't think so, I wouldn't do that. I don't think I would. I mean, I'm saying that now -- I don't know how I'll feel a couple months from now. But right now, I mean, I did what I thought I had to do. It didn't work. Oh well. You know what upsets me, though: No one knows me on a personal level in this league. There are a couple players who know me on a personal level. So for people to make assumptions about me as a player, you have to know me as a person."
What Jones-Drew is saying is he's different, and the numbers have backed him up through four weeks.
Conventional wisdom -- and what evaluators were saying as his holdout dragged on -- was that, at the very least, Jones-Drew would be in for a rough welcome back into the football world. Chris Johnson was the latest guy to fuel the theory that tailbacks need to take hits and get timing down in the preseason to be right once regular-season play begins.
All Jones-Drew has done is blow up that idea.
He's averaging 18 carries per game, and his current mark of 4.9 yards per carry is better than last year's figure (4.7). If he's a step slow, you're gonna have to show him where you're seeing it. In Jones-Drew's mind, there's been no drop-off.
"This is one thing a lot of people didn't get from the press conference, because it was all 'Why'd I do it?,' but the whole time I was away, I was making sure there would be no setbacks," he said. "I mean, I knew the decision I chose to make and I understood the consequences that came with it, I was gonna have to fight to get my job back and all those things. But when I got back, there were gonna be no excuses."
Good thing he hasn't needed any.
Jones-Drew's ability to bounce back can be credited to two things: his past and his preparation. After playing through 2010 with a torn meniscus in his knee, the diminutive Jaguar was on the shelf for much of the summer of 2011, and somehow was ready to win a rushing title that fall.
"A lot of people don't know this: I couldn't do anything for eight months last year. Anything," he said. "No cardio, there was nothing. I was in a straight-leg brace for two months. I was just rehabbing. I ran a little bit on those underwater treadmills, but they didn't want me doing any free running for eight months. Coming off that, and then not going through camp, being managed through camp, and being able to finish the year, that taught me a lot."
Now, that doesn't mean he doesn't value camp, because he does. Even though he thinks all bell-cow backs should be managed carefully through the offseason -- given the limited miles guys have in their legs -- he did add elements to his normal, rigorous workout schedule to simulate what he'd be going through had he reported to camp on time.
One way he did it was by eliminating "recovery" elements for two weeks in the summer. That meant doing everything he could on his feet (leisure activity: golf), and it meant no massages and no cold tubs, so he could feel himself suffering through the work.
"I knew what my legs felt like when they were in camp," Jones-Drew said. "In camp, your legs are heavy, they're tired, you can't run, you're sore, and I decided that'd be one way to get that going."
On the flip side, he avoided cutting in any aggressive sort of way to save tread on his tires, because his feeling is "that stuff you do in camp and OTAs breaks your body down."
And while he didn't go so far as to watch tape of Mike Mularkey's offense from the past few years with the Atlanta Falcons, he got his hands on the playbook and built a working knowledge of the terminology, which was the biggest mental hurdle he felt he had to clear.
What all of this boils down to is what really bothered him about the summer: That anyone would question his professionalism. He saw this as another chance to show who he is.
"The thing about it is when you are away, you have to be a professional about it," he said. "You play football for 20 years, you should understand where your body needs to be in Week 1 to perform at an elite level. If you mentally put yourself in that state, you should be fine. Now, it's tough to do that when you're trying to fight for more money, I understand that. In a holdout, there are a lot of things that people don't understand, that you're trying to fight for, and it's tough.
"The team's telling you you're not this, or you're not that, and it's mentally tough. But you have to be able to push through those things."
Jones-Drew says he and the team are fine now, though the contract situation or where he stands with the team hasn't come up. He won't bring it up to the club. Not now. But he's certainly not closing the door, either.
"Obviously I would love to, but I'm gonna let my production speak for itself," he said. "And let me say this: If you don't ask, you'll never know the answer. I don't feel like I'm anywhere where I wouldn't be if I hadn't asked. If I wouldn't have asked, I'd have done myself a misjustice."
In the end, maybe Jones-Drew didn't profit from sitting out. But by the looks of how he's performing, it didn't cost him much either.
Players on the spot
New York Jets QB Mark Sanchez: With Santonio Holmes down for the count, some folks immediately assume the Jets should install the Urban Meyer offense and put Tim Tebow at the helm, a la the 2011 Denver Broncos. But that kind of a move could have grave consequences. "Not that it wouldn't work," one AFC pro scout said, "but it'd be dangerous. You've essentially given Sanchez his walking papers for good if you do it." So it's on Sanchez now, against a swarming Houston Texans defense, to prove that option is not the best option.
Kansas City Chiefs QB Matt Cassel: Romeo Crennel left the door open for a change this week, and some think Cassel is holding a talented K.C. team back. "He's playing scared," another AFC scout said. "Doesn't trust his line. He's a game manager and is struggling to do that job. Teams are trying to stop the run, in order to force him to try and be more than he is. He needs a clean pocket." And this week, he gets the Baltimore Ravens.
Philadelphia Eagles CB Brandon Boykin: You might not be too familiar with the rookie, but he could wind up being a key player in the Philly-Pittsburgh showdown. Antonio Brown referred to Boykin as the "candy bar" when the Eagles get spread out -- which is to say the Steelers plan to find him and eat him up, rather than go at outside corners Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique-Rodgers-Cromartie.
Green Bay Packers LT Marshall Newhouse: The Green Bay offensive line bounced back last week against New Orleans. But with Dwight Freeney likely back after missing two games with an ankle injury, the Colts figure to be able to ratchet up the heat on what should be an emotional day at Lucas Oil Stadium, given Chuck Pagano's absence. The key for Indy will be doing what Seattle and San Francisco did against Green Bay: Make Aaron Rodgers throw before he wants. Newhouse is vital to preventing that from happening.
Coaches on the spot
New York Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano: This is an extension of the above blurb on Sanchez/Tebow. There's no doubt New York must be creative to generate offense, with Holmes gone, and Stephen Hill and Dustin Keller hobbled. Faced with a similar dearth of playmakers in his Miami days a few years back, Sparano unleashed the Wildcat on the NFL. We'll see if he has another rabbit to pull out of his hat.
Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett: You figured the Redskins' offense would be a work-in-progress early this season. Instead, it ranks third in the NFL. Meanwhile, the defense, which supposedly had been built up already, has sunk to 29th while allowing more than 30 points a game. Yes, the 'Skins lost Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker. Still, the defense should be better than this. And a potent Atlanta Falcons attack is next on the schedule.
Something to spot on Thursday night
One reason Arizona's gotten by offensively, enough so to be 4-0, is that the line hasn't been nearly as bad as expected after Levi Brown went down for the year. Tonight's game on NFL Network will provide a good test for Russ Grimm's patchwork group, with Chris Long and Robert Quinn leading an aggressive, hard-charging group for St. Louis.
The strength, or lack thereof, of the AFC East. Aside from the Patriots' performance, last weekend was a train wreck for this division. And New England's victim was divisional foe, to boot. This week, the Patriots get the Broncos, the Bills get the Niners, the Jets get the Texans and the Dolphins get the Bengals. Could this be the worst division in football? We'll know more after the weekend.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.