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The significance isn't just that Jones then went off by himself to spend nearly an hour pumping iron in the basement of a friend's house in suburban Chicago. It's that whenever he misses a workout during the day, he finds time later, lifting as late as 1 a.m. That kind of commitment has enabled Jones to keep his spot in the Bears' starting backfield, even after Chicago spent the fourth pick of the 2005 draft on Texas running back Cedric Benson. "I watched my mother work in a coal mine [in Big Stone Gap, Va.] when I was growing up, and I saw my father drive two hours to work every day," Jones, a seven-year veteran, says. "So if my job is going to be in jeopardy, it's not going to be because I didn't do everything to keep it."
After rushing for 1,335 yards and starting all but one game last season, Jones still had to fight for his job in training camp. It helped that he recovered from his strained right hamstring before Benson got over his sprained left shoulder. In the first two games of the season, wins over the Packers and the Lions, Jones carried twice as many times (42) as Benson. In Sunday's 19--16 victory at Minnesota, he took all 18 of Rex Grossman's handoffs. Benson, who was expected to be a big part of Chicago's attack, never got in the game.
Not that Jones's production has been all that impressive: He has gained 181 yards on 60 carries and 13 yards on five receptions. But those numbers are partially explained by opponents' committing eight or nine defenders to stopping the run and daring Grossman to beat them. (Which he did on Sunday, tossing a 24-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Rashied Davis with under two minutes to play.) At this point the Bears simply trust Jones in their offense more than they do Benson. Says former Bills general manager Tom Donahoe, " Benson maybe has more skills over the long haul, but Thomas is more dependable."
At 5'10" and 220 pounds Jones is a durable back suited to the ball-control offense run by coordinator Ron Turner, who regards Jones as "an excellent inside runner with a knack for making one cut and getting upfield." Jones is also a reliable receiver and an instinctive blocker. "He's able to pick up blitzes on the backside of the defense that aren't even his responsibility because he can sense when they're coming," Grossman says. "It says a lot that he can understand the whole offense instead of just what he has to do on the field."
Jones worked hard to become a 1,000-yard rusher after his pro career stalled early on. An All-America at Virginia, he was drafted at No. 7 by the Cardinals in 2000. Instead of becoming their featured back, however, Jones averaged a mere 421 yards over three seasons, injuries slowing him in his third year. Arizona traded him to Tampa Bay in June 2003. That deal was the start of a turnaround for Jones.
First, Bucs coach Jon Gruden gave him jersey number 6 to wear in practice—the number Jones had worn in college—as a reminder of how dominant the back used to be. Then, sharing the rushing load with Michael Pittman, Jones gained 627 yards and averaged 4.6 yards per carry. "I felt like I was more than just some guy on the team, which is how I felt in Arizona," Jones says. After the season he became a free agent and signed with the Bears, rushing for 948 yards in 2004.
But just when Jones thought he had proved himself, Chicago drafted Benson. "I won't say that I didn't take it personally, because I did," Jones says. "But I eventually realized I couldn't do anything about it. My job isn't to draft players. It's to play ball." He went on to have his best season as a pro, while Benson, who missed significant time with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee, picked up 272 yards on 67 carries.
In the off-season, though, coach Lovie Smith demoted Jones to second string after the back chose to work out with his personal trainer at his home in Fort Lauderdale rather than attend the Bears' voluntary program. He says he was willing to "let the chips fall where they may. I knew my work ethic, and I knew the game of football. Regardless of what was going on, I knew good things would happen."
Benson has to hope for the same, though it's not in his hands. As he trudged off the field on Sunday, having sat out an entire game for the first time since his freshman year at Texas, Benson received encouragement from a couple of assistant coaches. "We got caught in the rhythm of the game, and we didn't get him involved," Smith said.