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Adam on the eve

Adam Jones

GEORGETOWN, Ky. - You don't have to tell Adam Jones where he put his name.

It has been caked with enough mud that it has obliterated his wonderful nickname of speed and daring. "Don't call him Pacman" they say. "Call him Adam."

But if this Bengals training camp has shown anything it is he still has the stuff of nicknames on the field while growing more and more at ease with his new life off it.

It's hot out here on the comeback trail as Bengaldom embraces Jones on a steamy patch of bluegrass after practice one day this week.

"Couldn't ask for a better welcome," he says after spotting a guy in a wheelchair he saw the day before.

"How are you doing today?" he asks.

 "Will you sign my dress?" asks a little girl not much older than his own four-year-old daughter.

"Thanks Pacman," screeches another little voice.

"No problem," says Jones and so far there haven't been.

Suddenly he turns to a guy trailing the pack.

"Let me show you how I sign my name. I've been doing this since sixth grade," he said, taking a football, expertly turning it on its side, and explaining how he produces a neat signature.

"Here's the A, D and a, m," says Jones as the bold first two letters bleed into a line. Then "J and o, n, e, s" in another line.

When he jotted No. 24 underneath, he recalled exactly who got that first sixth-grade signature.

"My grandmother told me I should start practicing my autograph," he said. "She said, 'You're going to be famous.' Yeah. Right. Whatever."

Maybe once upon a time it was infamous but that is not the Jones that has signed up here. While the Bengals are crossing their fingers, Jones feels like he has crossed a bridge from those days he seemed to get in trouble with the law at every turn.

"Have you seen my daughter out here today? I'm trying to find her," Jones asks the guy trailing him. "You haven't seen her? She's beautiful. I wish you could have seen her out here with me yesterday. She was out here in flips. Oh, you missed a million dollar shot."

Zaniyah has always been in the picture. He's got custody and he'll tell you, "I don't play games with my kids, now. Ask anybody about that. I've always been serious about my little one."

But it is different and he knows why.

"The people I hang around were the biggest thing and just me as a person," he said. "I couldn't be around myself. I had to find the inner me. When you get down and dirty and everything's not going the way you expect, they run away. Thank God he did it for me and they all ran away and I kept them away.

"It's not just being a father. The inner person, you know? Just the stuff you don't want people to categorize you. I've made a lot mistakes. People know that crap. All I can do is to get them not to talk about it. I know people are on the edge of their seats because I've been quiet. You get used to it."

Then he spread his arms out to match his smile.

"Don't I look happy?" he asked.

Happiness is playing in his first game Sunday in nearly two years, his first since his run with the Cowboys ended in typical controversy and confusion late in the 2008 season.

Jones says he's excited. Anxious. Not quite ready to take the "seat belt off" in the scheme. But he can feel the old rush. "It could have been a little league team. As long as the referees were out there and it counted," he said.

Of course, it is the Cowboys and Jones would love to see Dallas owner Jerry Jones.

"He's my dude, regardless of whatever. Jerry Jones is my dude," he said. "If he's the first guy I could speak to, it would be great. He gave me a chance."

So did Bengals president Mike Brown, Jerry Jones' opposite number in the halls of NFL power. Jerry Jones is as big and as flashy as Dallas, his ideas for the league teeming with big business politics that helped mushroom it into a corporate giant. Brown is Midwest cautious who believes the NFL has to hang on to some basic principles that first made it great.

"He's the opposite of Jerry. I respect him. He gave me another shot," said Jones, who agreed that the organizations are run pretty similarly. "Run the same. It's crazy. The only thing that is different is Mr. Brown is out there every day, but he doesn't get into what's going on on the field, which I think is a good thing. He eats with us, but Jerry eats with us, too. I've eaten with Jerry. He likes catfish."

Sometimes the Bengals have catfish, too.

"I like everything," he said about his new team. "It's about football here first. Of course, it's also about being a professional. I'm not saying it's not about taking care of your business off the field. I'm talking about it's not about this and that. It's about football."

The way Jones can still play football has the Bengals excited. He says there is rust and he's not yet 100 percent. But he has easily become the third cornerback and that's not because the guys behind him are stiffs. Jones doesn't turn 27 until the fourth week of the regular season and he has been flying around here like the sixth pick in the NFL Draft.

Which he was just five years ago. Good enough that Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer continues to invoke the name of his good friend and USC roommate Troy Polamalu, a guy he always refers to in hushed Hall of Fame terms as one of the game's great players roaming safety for the Steelers.

"He's all over the field and he's a competitive guy," Palmer said of Jones. "He's fast. Extremely quick. He reminds me of Troy Polamalu. He can be in a back pedal, come out of his back pedal and in his first three steps he's running his full speed, 4.2 or 4.3. He's really great on comebacks and digs and if someone tries to run by him on a (fly pattern) he can go from a back pedal to opening up and sprinting as fast as anyone I've seen. I haven't noticed any rust."

The only thing Jones has noticed is that when the refs showed up earlier in the week, they started dropping flags on him. Jones has been so aggressive getting into the chest of receivers that when he uses his hands, the officials flag him.

Jones got hot a few night ago ("I just want to know what I did wrong," he says) when one flag flew, but "he'll figure it out" Palmer said, and that's where defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and special teams coach Darrin Simmons come in.

"He's got a lot of talent," Simmons said. "But he's got to work on those little things. The things that you can take for granted. Which can be a microcosm of him in general."

Zimmer is the guy that has taken ownership of the Jones move, relying a lot on the advice of another flashy former Cowboy, Deion Sanders.

"My name is attached to Zim regardless. I'm not going to let Zim down and I'm not going to let myself down," Jones said.

After Friday's practice, Zimmer called over Jones and put his hand on his shoulders for a good couple of minutes. It turned out it was about more than football.

"He just wanted to see how I was doing," Jones said. "And making sure I don't slip back. Stay where I am."

Jones got lit for the first play Friday in a drill where the offense was going off cards in preparation for the Cowboys. Wide receiver Quan Cosby did what hasn't happened very often here and beat Jones cleanly on a post.

This is what Zimmer screams at Jones about. Not just him. Everybody.

"Pay attention and I didn't pay attention," Jones admitted. "I've got to work on everything. Getting the call from the safeties. Oh yeah, I've been in the books more."

Zimmer is demanding the discipline he never had to use, doing the little things that used to be invisible to a player who scored four touchdowns in his last full season on sheer talent. Three on punt returns and one on an interception in 2006.

Now Zimmer and Simmons are on Jones to channel it into a system. He seems to be buying it.

"We've got a bet for a can of dip," Jones says of his wager with Simmons. "Catch six balls at once."

Simmons sets up a jug machine and fires punts at him. If Jones can hold six balls at one time after he catches them one after the other, he'll break the record of five that Simmons saw Jermaine Lewis do in Baltimore.

When Jones arrived, Simmons had Travis Brammer's video varmints produce two DVDs. One of all Jones's long plays and one of all his fumbles.

"That was his M.O.; one great play and two bad ones," Simmons said. "We're talking about a very dynamic guy here. If he can do those little things in practice and work on them so they become habits in a game, he'll be that much more dynamic. He'll have to do it because I won't put him on the field if I can't trust him."

The trust is building, but the incumbent returner, Cosby, gets the first punt Sunday. It's OK with Jones as he signs up for a new gig.

"Keep getting better day-by-by," he said with a wink, "and I hope I'm here a long time."

Before he went inside, he asked one last time.

"Have you seen my daughter yet? I haven't seen her out here," he said. "Maybe they went to the pool. She told me today, 'Daddy, I want to go swimming.' "

Zaniyah Jones can watch her dad get used to the water again if she can stay up late Sunday.

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