Jets RB Jones volunteers to work out, but contract squabble remains

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Practice was nearly complete when quarterback Kellen Clemens sprinted faster than any New York Jets player might this season. He happened to blow inches past me as he ran off the field, and, honestly, the wind from it felt like that from an ocean storm.

What, a Leon Washington sighting in the building? What, word of a new Thomas Jones deal? What, Clemens was named starting quarterback over rookie Mark Sanchez?

Later, all learned that Clemens was whizzing to his wife, Nicole, who was in labor.

Oh ... no Washington in sight. Oh ... Jones in sight but no new deal. Oh ... the Jets' quarterback tango ensues.

And so did the Jets' practice.

It was held on one of their new lush fields at their pristine complex near a sturdy, tall oak tree that stands smack in the middle of the grounds. And it served as a reminder that a root of the Jets' offense -- its running back affairs -- remains loosely planted.

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Indications are that Washington, who turns 26 on Aug. 29 as he enters his fourth NFL season -- will receive the new deal he is requesting. Indications are that Jones -- he turns 31 on August 19th and enters his 10th NFL season -- likely will not.

Fresh legs often supplant older ones, especially at running back in the NFL. Teams often embrace the notion that when NFL backs hit the age of 30, they start a downward trend that leads to zilch in production.

Jones does not like that label slapped upon him. Sure, his age makes him eligible for that club but not an instant member, he insists, and is there an NFL back in better shape? No. Did he just lead the AFC in rushing with 1,312 yards? Yes. Did he show up for this voluntary camp, after missing others, as a show of goodwill and to keep communication open? Yes. Did he keep his mouth zipped, despite his frustration over his contract, after reporting this week? Yes.

And those last two decisions could mean something positive.

Take it from a player who knows, cornerback Lito Sheppard, who arrived this offseason in a trade with Philadelphia after public acrimony over his contract that lingered for two years with the Eagles.

Once he quieted, he was moved, shipped to the Jets on Feb. 27. His new team improved his contract.

"It's a new shade of green for me," Sheppard said. "We just weren't on the same page there. And sometimes the more you talk in public and the more heated it gets, you start to go in different directions. Every situation with every player is different, and that includes the one for Thomas. You can sit out. You can be disgusted and play. You can suck it up and play."

Jones is in the third year of a four-year, $20 million deal of which he already has earned $13 million. He is set to earn $900,000 this year. And a $3 million roster bonus in March 2010. He received a ton of money early in this deal. He believes he deserves more late in this contract. More security. The Jets drafted running back Shonn Greene from Iowa. And Jones knows he could be cut after this season to avoid that $3 million payment.

The way Jones sees it, he just proved last season at age 30 that he is one of the NFL's best backs.

The way the Jets see it, that could all go downward with each increasing handoff, game, season.

The way I see it, Jones deserves a modest salary boost that reflects this season and one more and his roster bonus for next season. Find a fair agreement in this manner or play it out this season any way both sides choose and both move on.

Sheppard knows that finding common ground in these matters can be elusive.

"Your idea of your value and the team's idea can really be a big thing," Sheppard said. "We all have the common goal as a team, but the player and the team before you get to that goal has their own business goals. This is far from a democracy. The team has the ultimate say in what is going to happen with the player. So, he (Jones) is doing the right thing showing up, being a part, talking. He is being a professional."

Jets guard Alan Faneca has had his share of contract squabbles during his past 11 NFL seasons. He said, simply, that business is business and football is football.

"I think across our locker room, the feeling is that this is the time, the offseason, to take care of business," Faneca said. "You wish he could be here every day as we are building, but he is here right now. I expect he will be here for the mandatory dates. I know the offensive line supports him. He keeps the lines of communication open with us. He does it in such a way off the field that on the field less has to be said. I don't know what we have in others. I know what we have in him, and when you put the pads on, you see that."

Linebacker Bart Scott has yet to play his first real down for the Jets, but he sees what Faneca sees.

"You don't subtract Thomas Jones and be a better football team," Scott said. "I know he is here and is in shape. I expected that. I expect him to be in the lineup in September in our first game. Very few players in this league have not or won't one day be right where Thomas is right now. We respect the player. We respect the organization. And you just hope that the business of it all does not collide beyond repair."

On his first day back, on Wednesday when he joined his teammates, Jones entered a meeting room full of running backs and introduced himself.

The rookie Greene walked up to Jones and introduced himself.

A 10-year player, a rookie. Two backs, their careers intertwining, passing. Two weapons, both hoping used in unison, not solely pitted against each other.

"I'm smart enough to get it, to know I am here for a job and that it could turn out a lot of ways," Greene said. "Things are kind of blurry right now, so I'm just focusing on doing what I am supposed to be doing and learning. Thomas, physically, is an animal, one of the strongest guys around. I respect him and his play. It's an interesting situation. But you quickly learn in this league to do what you are asked."

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