Bengals cornerback Adam Jones looked to be the odds-on favorite to win the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year before he suffered a season-ending neck injury in last season's sixth game. Now with his collar coming off for good Thursday and angling for a return to the field in June, Jones qualifies as a candidate again.
"I'm looking for a starting job. I'm not looking to be the nickel again," Jones said Tuesday. "If that's what I have to be, that's what I have to be, but I'm going in trying to start."
The Bengals cornerback spot is in a great deal of flux. One of the starters, Johnathan Joseph, is a free agent. The nickel from 2009, Morgan Trent, is coming off a serious knee injury. One of the guys leering at them in the draft with the No. 4 pick is LSU's Patrick Peterson, a 6-1, 210-pounder that would be a nice, big fit in the physical AFC North.
After missing two of the previous three seasons with off-field problems, Jones, 27, resurfaced in Cincinnati last May with the recommendation of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Proving that he still had plenty of that top 10 athleticism from the 2005 draft while also toeing the line in Zimmer's scheme, he thinks the next step is going to be the biggest.
"It should be unbelievable; I can play a whole lot faster," he said. "All last year I was learning when I could jump routes, making sure my technique was right. This year I can just focus on the football stuff. It's going to be a whole lot easier."
The desire to start is fueling Jones' rehab, which he hopes kick-starts a contract year. It's been four months since he underwent surgery to repair a herniated neck disc and six weeks since he switched to a soft collar that has allowed him to work out. Once the collar is off, he says he'll begin running next week. And he's done a good job keeping on the weight at 180 pounds. Jones has played at 185, but he's looking to get to camp at 190 in order to keep it on.
"Right now I've been doing anything that's stationary," he said. "Leg presses, working the core, riding the bike, working the shoulders with (dumb bell) weights."
Jones doesn't have any qualms about getting back into the game. Anything with the neck is scary, but he says it's not a career-threatening injury. At the same time, he's not going to rush contact.
"I'm going to be ready on the first day, but I don't think I have to hit right away in training camp," he said. "But believe me, at some point in camp I'll find out if I'm healed and I'll be ready. You know me."
Translation: Once he gets in the mix, either in a practice or a game, he won't back down. He had one of the four interceptions of the Ravens' Joe Flacco in the second game. What turned out to be the club's longest punt return of the season, a 27-yarder, set up the Bengals 10-7 halftime lead against Tampa Bay. His strip-and-score fumble from an electrifying 59 yards out capped the Bengals' furious 22-0 third-quarter that gave them a 25-24 lead in Atlanta. They lost him and the game in the fourth quarter.
"I think I did it way before that game, but it just got worse," he said. "I had tingling down both arms and, at that point, you have to get it fixed."
The coup de grace appeared to be what he thought was a bit of a late hit on a punt, but "I don't point fingers. That's what we signed up for," Jones said.
What he and his fiancée didn't sign up for last year was the Aug. 15 birth of Triniti Alexander, three months premature at just 2.3 pounds and not that much bigger than her dad's hands. She didn't go home for the first two months and there was the one day the doctors told the couple they didn't expect her to live.
"You want to see a picture?" Jones asked as he displayed a jolly picture of a five-month-old. "She's been home three months and she's doing great."
Dad, it seems, feels like he can get there, too.
"If my body holds up," he said, "the sky's the limit."
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» The Bengals figure to be looking for guards and they'll coach a good one in the Senior Bowl in John Moffitt, a 6-5, 323-pounder from Wisconsin. It's believed that his fellow Badgers offensive lineman, tackle Gabe Carimi, may also be ticketed for next week in Mobile, Ala., and at 6-7, 327-pound he's considered a good prospect that may end up as a guard.
» The rosters keep changing and will do so almost up until game time, which is 4 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 29 on the NFL Network. That's how Michigan cornerback Morgan Trent got there, replacing injured University of Cincinnati cornerback Mike Mickens after the first North practice. When he got there, Bengals director of football operations Jim Lippincott had to remind him to unroll his practice jersey so the NFL scouts could see his number. As it turned out, he didn't have to. The Bengals took him in the sixth round and he became the nickel corner for a division champ as a rookie.
» The Bengals appear to have all their draft picks because they didn't lose one in the trade for Jaguars safety Reggie Nelson at the start of last season. The deal that sent cornerback David Jones to Jacksonville also included a contingent draft pick, but the requirements weren't met.
» They didn't play as much as the other rookies, but Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap and kicker Clint Stitser were named the Pro Football Weekly/Pro Football Writers of America all-rookie team.
Despite playing just 26 percent of his team's snaps, Dunlap and his 9.5 sacks were named to the defensive line. So was the rookie sack leader with 10, tackle Ndamukong Suh of the Lions, as well as Raiders end Lamarr Houston (five sacks) and Jaguars tackle Tyson Alualu with 3.5.
And Stitser made it even though he didn't sign until Nov. 30 and kicked in just five games. But the closest rookie to him in the NFL scoring race was Aaron Pettrey even though he got cut after just two games and was replaced by Stitser. In fact, the third-leading rookie scorer was Suh, who scored a defensive touchdown but missed an emergency extra point to finish with six points.
» With Mike Nugent (knee) rehabbing well, Stitser is going to have a tough time making it back here after missing two extra points and then a 29-yard field goal in the season finale. But his 45-yarder with 4:25 left that gave the Bengals a 30-27 lead over the Saints and his four field goals in the win over the Browns should earn him another shot in the league. It remains to be seen if they'll keep him if and when Nugent is all the way back from ACL surgery.
» Here are the offensive rookie picks: QB Sam Bradford, Rams; RB LeGarrette Blount, Bucs; RB Chris Ivory, Saints; WR Mike Williams, Bucs; WR Dez Bryant, Cowboys; TE Rob Gronkowski, Patriots; C Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers; G Mike Iupati, 49ers; G John Jerry, Dolphins; T Rodger Saffold, Rams; T Bryan Bulaga; Packers.
Defense: DT Ndamukong Suh, Lions; DE Carlos Dunlap, Bengals; DT Lamarr Houston, Raiders; DT Tyson Alualu, Jaguars; LB Rolando McClain, Raiders; LB Koa Misi, Dolphins; LB Pat Angerer, Colts; CB Devin McCourty, Patriots; CB Joe Haden, Browns; S Eric Berry, Chiefs; S T.J. Ward, Browns.
Specialists: PK Clint Stitser, Bengals; P Zoltan Mesko, Patriots; PR Marc Mariani, Titans; KR Jacoby Ford, Raiders; ST T.J. Ward, Browns.
» The Bengals know them well. Gronkowski, Ivory and Mike Williams all scored TDs on them and Ward leveled their own rookie wide receiver Jordan Shipley in a now infamous heavily-fined hit. Williams is a no-brainer with a season he was 36 yards shy of 1,000 yards. Shipley had seven more caches than Bryant with 52 and 39 more yards with 600. But Bryant had six TDs, Shipley three.
» Dale Mueller of Highlands High School in Fort Thomas, Ky., is among 28 football coaches from across the nation who have been named as nominees for the inaugural Don Shula NFL Coach of the Year Award, the Bengals announced Wednesday via the following news release:
"The award was created to honor exemplary football coaches at all levels of the sport who display the integrity, achievement, and leadership demonstrated by the winningest coach in NFL history, Don Shula.
The coaches were nominated by NFL teams and by USA Football, the sport's national governing body on youth and amateur levels. Mueller's nomination was supported by the Bengals, and a coach from Columbus, Ohio -- Tom Sappington of Hastings Middle School -- was the USA Football nominee.
Mueller is among 16 high school coaches nominated. The list also includes six coaches from the NFL, three from colleges and three from youth football or middle school. Coaches were chosen for "their character and integrity, inspirational leadership, commitment to the community and on-field success."
The national winner is to be announced during Super Bowl week. The eight-person selection panel includes Don Shula, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, former NFL head coaches Tony Dungy and John Madden, and General Raymond Odierno, commander of the United States Joint Forces Command. The national winner will receive $25,000 in addition to a trip to the Super Bowl.
Mueller, a Fort Thomas native and a Highlands graduate, has had remarkable success at his alma mater. In 17 seasons (1994-2010) as head coach, he has won 10 state championships, with a record of 215-34 (.863 winning percentage).
Although Highlands' student enrollment is that of a Kentucky Class 3A school, the Bluebirds have accepted the option to play in the Class 5A ranks the past four seasons and have won the state title each year. They were 14-0 in 2010.
Mueller was also the 2008 season winner of the Paul Brown Excellence in Coaching Award. The award is given annually by the Bengals to an outstanding high school football coach in the region.
In addition to his football success at Highlands, Mueller is an accomplished academic instructor, having taught courses that range from entry level algebra to advanced physics. Dale and his wife, Patty, have four children and will celebrate their 33rd wedding anniversary in August.
Asked during the Shula Award nomination process to describe his motivation for coaching, Mueller said:
"I became a teacher because my mom was just a wonderful teacher. She loved her students and worked as hard as she could to help make them successful. I became a football coach because being a teacher presented me that opportunity, and I could see that coaching was a way to have a big positive impact on young men.
"Ultimately, my philosophy is that through football, we can help students develop as men and become the kind of men who can be counted on and be a blessing to their families and their communities."