Jones finds peace in playoffs

1-29-01, 10:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

NEW ORLEANS _Over there is Rod Jones obliging the Mexico City TV reporter and lifting him high into the air before body slamming him to the Super Dome turf.

Over here is Rod Jones appearing before a German TV crew and saying in German for the microphone, "Good morning. Santa Claus. Good-bye."

Now Rod Jones is winning a staring contest with the pint-sized correspondent from cable kids TV giant Nickelodeon and mugging for the camera, "I'm the best."

And why shouldn't Rod Jones go around the world in Tuesday's whirlwind Super Bowl media day here for his NFC champion St. Louis Rams? After all, he has already been to Hell and back in a season that began in a vat of depression and nearly retirement.

"They saw something in me I didn't even see in myself," said Jones, his Super Bowl identification tag verifying what a year ago looked ridiculous.

After three weeks away from training camp in what amounted to a spiritual retreat with a psychologist, Jones, the former Bengals left tackle, is a key figure on a team 60 minutes from the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

He might not even play Sunday here against the Patriots because Rams starting tackles Orlando Pace (knee) and Ryan Tucker (ankle) say they are healthy. Plus, Jones pulled his groin badly enough filling in for both in last Sunday's NFC championship game that he had to leave before the victory over the Eagles was complete.

But Jones, who says he'll practice Wednesday and play if needed, helped get the Rams here. Two weeks ago, he started his first playoff game at right tackle for the injured Tucker and helped keep the NFL's third best sack attack in check against the Packers. Then last week, he started again for Tucker, but moved to left tackle when the Pro Bowler Pace hurt his knee and Jones stoned dangerous Eagles' sacker Hugh Douglas .

"When a guy goes down during a game it's tough to keep going at the same level," Pace said. "But when Rod went in there, we didn't miss a beat. We're fortunate to have him as a third tackle."

That Rod Jones? The man who lost his starting job in Cincinnati during a nightmarish 2000 season? The man who gave up a startling number of blind-side sacks that rocked the career of quarterback Akili Smith and turned around more games than instant replay? The 27-year-old Rod Jones who was cut this past June in favor of 34-year-old Richmond Webb? A move that helped the Bengals cut their number of sacks from 46 in 2000 to 28 in 2001.

That Rod Jones?

"He s a beast," Tucker said. "He kills people in the running game, I haven't seen a lineman block like that in the running game. Hell, he mashes people."

There it was on camera Tuesday. Rod Jones at the Super Bowl. He had turned reporter himself when the Fox station in St. Louis gave him a camcorder to shoot the inside story of Media Day.

"There he is. Big No. 60. Rod Jones. The key to our success," said Pace as Jones helped out the guy from the Rosie O'Donnell Show and reached over to put a microphone in front of Pace.

Pace may have been exaggerating, but he wasn't kidding. Rams head coach Mike Martz declared Tuesday, "We're fortunate to have him."

It was Martz who hung with Jones during those strange, early days in July. The newly-signed Jones, fresh off his decision to forgo the Bengals' two-year offer of more than $1 million for the Rams' one-year, $600,000 deal, told Martz after the first day of double sessions that he was quitting.

"I was spiritually and mentally exhausted," Jones said. "I was

drained. I couldn't do it any more."

But Martz didn't go ballistic. He not only gave him the time of day, he gave him something more important. Just plain time.

"My visit with Rod in my office when I made the decision was very brief," Martz said. "He was someone you obviously wanted to have on your football team. I just felt like if we were going to be patient with him, that things would work out. Fortunately, it has."

Jones can't thank Martz enough . His desire to come back returned the moment Martz told him he could take as long as he needed to piece his life back together.

"When they showed how much they cared about me as a person, not just as a football player, I almost felt obligated to come back," Jones said. "There was no way it was going to be a bad situation. It was going to be a positive situation."

Jones takes no shots at the Bengals ("They did right by me,") and there is no reason to. They drafted him in the seventh round out of Kansas in 1996, believing in his bad knees. And then before the 2000 season, they gave him $2.5 million to sign a three-year, $9 million deal even though he had arthroscopic surgery on his knee

Jones couldn't run in the offseason and ballooned to 350 pounds for the May minicamp. He said he got it back down to 328 pounds, but the knee didn't feel quite right at training camp and he still kept playing. Then came the mid-season benching in favor of John Jackson.

"He knew it wasn't up to par," said Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson. "Plus, his shoulder was banged up and he really couldn't punch with it. He didn't complain about it, but I don't think he was healthy."

What the 2000 offseason took out of Jones physically, the 2001 offseason wrung from him mentally. He slimmed down to 317 pounds right before the draft as he watched the Bengals heavily court free-agents Todd Steussie and Ross Verba to replace him.

Then Jones heard they would replace him with a left tackle in the draft. Then they opted to do it in free agency with Webb on April 30 and then cut Jones for salary cap purposes in early June. He had no time to think about what had happened to him and suddenly the money didn't mean as much.

"I think he had heard other teams talk about how tough it is in Cincinnati and he wanted to try another way," Anderson said. "He wanted to go some place else different. I guess you could say it's another tragedy where a guy left the Bengals to do well, but you can't blame either side. Rod needed a new start and the Bengals felt they had to make a move and did."

The Bengals got what they sought. Their running game may have suffered some with the loss of Jones, but Webb did what they needed and improved the pass protection 100 percent. And Jones gets what he wanted this Sunday.

A shot at a ring.

"It's a win-win situation," Jones said. "A player can play for years and never get a chance to play in a game like this. I'm blessed."

He also says he was blessed when the Rams sent him to psychologist Jim Gough in Phoenix. He stayed at the fellow Kansas alum's home for about three weeks. They talked while Jones cooked.

Remember when Jones had to leave a game last year against these same Patriots in Foxboro, Mass., in an ambulance? His heart raced out of control after he gave up a key sack near the end of the game that not only stopped the Bengals' last chance, but also got quarterback Scott Mitchell hurt.

"(Gough) broke that down, too, Jones said. "We looked at that and he figured that was an anxiety attack more than anything. A panic attack."

"When he came back," Martz said of the stint with Gough, "he was a new man."

His fellow linemen thought it was strange when Jones left camp. They didn't quite know what they had on their hands.

"But once he came back, he fit right in with us," Tucker said. "He works hard, he's strong, fast. When an offensive lineman is hurting and getting into a grind, his confidence gets busted up a little bit and he doesn't play as well. He's coming into a positive environment We just go out and play ball and if you mess up, you mess up, you get the next play. That attitude frees him up mentally to just go out and play the game."

Jones acted free Tuesday. He says he'll go back to his Cincinnati home after the Super Bowl because he loves the town and he still loves Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau and offensive line coach Paul Alexander and "friends for life," like Anderson and Brock Gutierrez.

The Rams give Jones the business for coming from a losing team to a winner. Pace told Jones the other day, "Those guys in Cincinnati must really hate you know, man. They probably don't even call you."

But there is no hate. They have been through too much together. But on Tuesday, Jones was delighted to be a St. Louis Ram.

"You know when you sit at home with your Dad watching the Super Bowl?" asked Jones in between smiles and camera bits. "Now here it is."

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