Adam Jones has plans Saturday night before curfew and after the Bengals team meeting at the hotel in his hometown of Atlanta.
But no worries. The old friend he’s meeting is going to be in the Georgia Dome and by that time coach Dallas Allen’s Douglass High School team should be nearing halftime on the field where Jones and the Bengals play the Falcons the next afternoon in what could be his first start since 2008.
Allen says he’ll greet Jones with “Come over here and give me a hug,” and continue to admire his climb out of the abyss.
“I think he’s made a 360-degree turn,” Allen said Thursday night over the phone from Greater Atlanta. “He’s milder, more humble. I think he’s in tune with reality now. I think a lot of his problems were who he had around him. You know how it is when you’re kids and you build that treehouse and you say you’re going to stay together forever. They’re from the same neighborhood and I think he’s realized he had to move on.”
Jones must consider Allen family because Allen has one of the 50 tickets Jones has purchased for his first appearance ever in the Dome even though he was an all-state player for Allen at Westlake High School.
“Nothing but family,” Jones said Thursday. “I try to be like that now. I don’t need any more friends.”
Allen can hear the evidence that the man who used to be the NFL’s most notorious player is turning his life around. He used to have to chase him down on the phone. If he had the right number.
“He used to change his number like he changed socks,” Allen said. “Now I talk to him once or twice a week. He’s had the same number for awhile. He was down here last week and he called and he asked me, ‘Coach, do you want to hang out with us?’ and I told him, ‘No, but be careful. If everybody wants to go left, you go right.’ ”
Jones juked a couple of defenders before going straight up the field for his 27-yard punt return against Tampa Bay two weeks ago to ignite the Bengals’ first scoring drive and ring up their longest return of the season. He says his big returns come in pairs, but he’s looking for something longer because he says, “This will be a great week to start it out,” and “Hopefully I’ll be able to go in there and shake it.”
He may have to do more than that with left cornerback
“There’s no question he’s a spark for us like he was against Tampa,” Simmons said. “He’s an emotional player. Doing well is important to him. I sense some renewal in him the past couple of weeks. I think he’s getting healthier and I think he realizes as a team, we have to go and we have to go right now. One of the big reasons players play is to get the respect of their peers, and he clearly thinks he’s got something to prove.”
Allen isn’t surprised that Simmons considers Jones a student of the game. At Westlake, Allen put Jones at linebacker and let him roam “while I coached the other 10 guys. He knew all the positions on defense and if you didn’t do what you were supposed to do, you’d hear from him.”
The 5-10, 188-pound Jones averaged 221 yards rushing at running back and 16 tackles at linebacker and Allen says even before they went into the locker room for halftime he was already breaking down the defense and suggesting how they had to adjust. Jones says it’s not that complicated when it comes to the punt return game.
“We’re just one block away. If you look at the film, it’s just one block away,” Jones said. “We just have to stay focused. When they come, they’re going to come in pairs. I’m not really going to beat myself up about the return game. It’s Week 5.”
It took the Bengals five games to get a return of at least 20 yards after a preseason they had three players get at least one of 20. One of the reasons, Simmons said, is because better players are covering kicks in the regular season. Another is that opposing punters have the second-worst average in the league against the Bengals and they haven’t had many chances to field one with some room.
“And we have to block better, no question about that,” said Simmons, who has been mixing and matching a bit with new personnel.
For instance, two of his punt return blockers have been safeties
“We’re hoping for some kicks down the field indoors,” Simmons said.
Allen is used to watching his guys do something. During his 20 seasons at Westlake, he coached a slew of NFL players, including former Bengals safety Anthony Mitchell and Bucs safety Sean Jones, who the Bengals just played. Also on the horizon is the newest Heisman hopeful Cam Newton, the Auburn quarterback.
But he never saw them do what Jones did the first time Allen saw him on the basketball court as a kid just coming into high school. The coach said something to Jones like, “What are you doing out here?” and Jones promptly took the ball, spiked it in the lane, and dunked.
“That’s when I knew,” Allen said, “he was something special.”
“He did the usual kid things, but he didn’t get in any big trouble in high school,” Allen said. “I think it got away from him for a little bit. His grandmother died. So did another woman who was significant in his life. I think once he saw his salary taken away like that (in an NFL suspension), he realized he couldn’t do whatever he wanted to do.”
Now in his second chance, Jones is getting his first chance to play in the Georgia Dome. A family-friendly show.
“My people are going to be rooting me on,” he said. “It’s going to be fun.”