6-7-01, 5:25 p.m.
Updated: 6-7-01, 11:05 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
For Rod Jones, it was just like when he came out of Kansas five years ago. The NFL teams most interested in his services were the Bengals and Rams.
But this time, the Rams won out Thursday when Jones opted to take a one-year deal in St. Louis instead of return to Cincinnati for two years.
"It was a tough decision. It took a lot out of me. It took a lot of time and it took a lot prayer," said Jones Thursday night. "It was basically a tossup. It came down to moving on with my life. To keep growing and keep my options open."
Jones, the Bengals' Opening Day left tackle the past two seasons, got cut last week when it became clear he wasn't going to move past Richmond Webb and John Jackson on the depth chart.
Classy to the end, Jones, 27, blamed himself for his disastrous play last year that cost him his job six weeks into the season and Bengals quarterback Akili Smith some game-turning fumbles on blindside hits.
"I came in too heavy and it was nobody's fault but my own," said Jones of his 350 pounds. "I don't think they gave up on me too quickly. They did what they had to do. I wasn't where I should have been and you always end up paying the consequences. I paid the consequences."
Mark Bartelstein, Jones' agent, wouldn't divulge money. But the deal is clearly less than the $2.1 million he would have made this year if he didn't get cut and is probably just a little more than the $477,000 minimum salary.
Bartelstein said the Bengals' offer "at the end of the day was probably a little more," but the fact St. Louis offered a one-year contract and a change of scenery carried the day.
"Yeah, it was a little more. But it's not about the money," Jones said. "The one year (contract) was kind of important because it lets me keep my
options open. It just came down to what I thought was best for my life at this point."
Bartelstein said Jones also got some up-front money from the Rams, something the Bengals most likely didn't offer after giving him $2.5 million to sign 17 months ago.
"A two-year deal made more sense to us because we think at this point in Rod's career he would have to develop at a new position," said Bengals scout Duke Tobin. "To help us and to make our team, he'd have to be able to play right tackle or guard as a backup.
"To take a player and develop him at a new position, you want some reward in the back year," Tobin said. "We wish him well. If he plays like he did two years ago, he has a chance to help them."
Jones, projected for the Rams as the swing man backing up left tackle Orlando Pace and right tackle Ryan Tucker, played well enough two years ago for the Bengals to sign him to a three-year, $9 million deal. But he played so badly last year that he lost his starting job to Jackson in the seventh game of the season.
Jones is currently at about 330 pounds, about 20 pounds lighter than last year, when offseason arthroscopic surgery on torn knee cartilage contributed to his lack of conditioning.
But after reporting about six weeks ago at 317 pounds, Jones looked to have regained his quickness during last month's workouts before the Bengals cut him May 31.
"We didn't know if he could have backed up at guard or right tackle until we put on the pads," Tobin said. "If he could have done it, it might have afforded us the luxury of keeping one less offensive lineman. But if you go into season with four tackles you're comfortable playing with, you're going to be all right."
The Bengals are happy with Webb and right tackle Willie Anderson as their starters and Jackson and Jamain Stephens as their backups, respectively. The club has been told by those who have seen Webb play in Miami that he traditionally puts on weight over the offseason and that should be able to lose his 15-20 pounds and be effective at training camp.
Jones spoke Thursday morning with Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander. It's a close relationship that began when Alexander went out on a limb in 1996 and spent a seventh-round pick on the kid from Kansas with bad knees.
"Paul told me he always believed in me and still believed in me and he wanted me back," Jones said. "It was a good talk. I've always felt we're close friends and that's the kind of talk it was. There's a lot of irony in this."
Irony? Jones' first NFL start was in his first NFL game at the TWA Dome in St. Louis. It was a start at guard, a semi-new position for him, and Opening Day '96 turned out to be an unmitigated disaster for the Bengals and their offensive line with three rookie starters.
Jones said the draw of a Rams' team that has won the Super Bowl and been to the playoffs the past two seasons was another selling point. But not as big as one might think.
"Every player thinks about getting in a position to go to the playoffs," Jones said. "But I think the Bengals are in good position to do that. They made some moves this offseason that brought in some quality players at key positions. I bet they do well. I have faith in those guys."
With Jones out of the picture, it appears veterans Scott Rehberg, a guard, and Mike Doughty, a tackle, are dueling with first-year center Roger Roesler for the final roster spot if the Bengals keep 10 linemen.
There appear to be nine favorites, counting the four tackles. They join centers Rich Braham and Brock Gutierrez, starting guards Matt O'Dwyer and Mike Goff, and fifth-rounder Victor Leyva as the leading candidates going into training camp.
"You need two solid centers and we've been able to play with Brock when Richie has been hurt," Tobin said. "Plus, he's valuable because he has also played guard."