Adam Jones is quickly making an impression in Cincinnati. (AP photo)
Once upon a time an NFL icon nicknamed "Prime Time" found peace in Cincinnati.
Deion Sanders, who played 33 games for the Reds in that same 1995 season and helped Mike Zimmer win a Super Bowl in Dallas, thinks his friend Adam Jones can not only find peace here but also glory.
"He'll be better than he was," Sanders predicted Wednesday. "He's bigger. He's stronger. He's got a different mindset. He's not going to be out until three and four in the morning. He's not that kid anymore.
"Cincinnati is where I found the Lord. I've always admired the city. It's a wonderful place to live. The people are so mild-mannered. A great place to raise a family. I think it's a better fit for him than Dallas or some of these other cities where there is a lot to get into."
Zimmer, the Bengals defensive coordinator, was the Cowboys secondary coach when Sanders, his Hall of Fame cornerback, and company filched the Super Bowl from the likes of Steve Young and Bill Cowher 15 years ago after a summer Sanders hit .240 and stole 16 bases for the Reds. Zimmer has been pleased with the early returns of Sanders' pupil, noting Jones has been in his meetings' front row listening attentively.
And, now hear this.
Jones' play in his first four Bengals practices has stirred some snap, crackle and pop around here. It is early, particularly for a guy that has had a dozen incidents with police intervention and NFL suspensions wiping out 22 games.
But there is guarded optimism watching him breaking and covering with a reservoir of elite skills worthy of the sixth pick in the draft that doesn't seem to have dried up after not playing at all last year.
Still, while guys like quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receivers Andre Caldwell and Matt Jones marvel at Jones's quickness and closing speed for a man that hasn't lined up opposite a defense in a year and a half, Zimmer is charting the intangibles instead of the interceptions.
"I'm more concerned about that he's listening; trying hard," Zimmer said. "That he's doing things the way we want him to do it. He's trying to understand the coverages and the techniques and how we want to play. To me that is much more important than anything else right now.
"No issues whatsoever with him. He sits in the front row in the meeting, listens to me. He's one of the guys right now."
Zimmer and Sanders go way back and talk often. Zimmer tells a pretty good story about going to the batting cage with Sanders once and getting all over him for trying to get his eye on the ball with a couple of bunts.
Sanders has been keeping Zimmer apprised of Jones from the get-go and Zimmer took his counsel quote seriously. Sanders is just pleased Jones is playing for a guy like Zimmer.
"I'm glad he's playing for a guy that I trust and believe in," Sanders says. "Zim is one of my dearest coaches. He tells the truth. He puts his butt on the line. And he'll tell you, 'If I'm going down I'm taking some of you guys with me.' Zim will break you. Plus, he knows what Adam is. He knows he's that kind of dog that can just flat out cover and won't let you go. That's what Zim needs the way he plays defense because he's coming after you and he needs dogs to cover. Zim knows that's what Adam is."
Better yet, Jones knows it. He clearly hasn't lost his '06 swagger, when he returned three punts and a pick for touchdowns.
"I'm never going to lose my swagger on the field," Jones said in his 13-minute debut with the Cincinnati media Wednesday. "If you see me out there, I compete every play. If I don't make the play, I'm upset with myself. That's the kind of swagger I'm talking about. I'm not talking about a swagger with your pants down or nothing like that. I'm talking about on the field. If I'm not playing with a swagger on the field, I don't need to be out there."
Maybe even better still, his offensive teammates are seeing it. On Wednesday, Caldwell ran a short route where he pivoted quickly and safely in front, he thought, of Jones and prepared to put the ball away. But Jones came out of nowhere and wrenched the ball out of his hands.
"I know exactly what play you're talking about," Caldwell said. "I'm wide open and he ... he's super quick. Real quick. A playmaker. I see why he went where he went when he came out in the draft. He's so quick. He can run with you and he can come out of the break quick and make plays."
Matt Jones has kept up with Adam's career ever since they came out in the 2005 draft, when Matt went 12 picks later to the Jaguars at No. 18. They visited the Redskins on the same day and ended up in the same division. In fact, in Adam's breakout '06 season he personally beat the Jags with an 83-yard interception return for a touchdown and then in the middle of the fourth quarter he broke up a fourth-down red-zone pass headed to Matt to preserve the Tennessee win.
"He hit my arm. He never jumped up to the ball. Pass interference all the way," said Matt with a smile Wednesday. "He's definitely always one of the quicker guys on the team. He's a real good athlete. His IQ level for football is pretty high. As long as he trusts himself and learns the scheme, then he's fine. I think he gets in trouble when he tries to do his own thing. He's such a good athlete and he's got such a high football IQ. I think he's going to be good. Everything I've seen (the last two weeks), the way he's breaking on the ball and running around, he seems really, really quick."
The skills haven't been lost on Palmer and he didn't fool around Wednesday comparing Adam Jones to a guy close to his own heart, Steelers Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, his former USC housemate.
"Very fast, explosive. He reminds me of Troy Polamalu," Palmer said. "He can be in a backpedal, break on the ball and be at full speed in two or three steps. You can't be late to his side or he will make a play on the ball. I have been a couple times on his side and he's made plays on the ball. Receivers have had the ball in their hands and he's found a way to punch it out. That closing speed is very rare. It reminds me of Troy and there aren't many guys that have that first two or three steps and are at full speed."
Sanders has been talking about rarity, too.
"There aren't too many guys that play corner that have the ball skills that can turn it into six points," Sanders said. "He's there with only a few guys. Charles Woodson. Ed Reed. Both Cromarties. (Darrelle) Revis is the real deal. It's not hype. He's a great cover corner, but he's not going to bring it to the house. Adam is going to do that."
"I think the Bengals have one of the top four corner tandems in the league," Sanders said of Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall. "But you need five corners nowadays, the way they throw it. Somebody is going to get hurt and you need guys to play special teams. You need five."
If Jones can keep it together, the Bengals would seem to have that. Behind Hall and Joseph are last year's nickel corner, Morgan Trent, the nickel corner the year before that, David Jones, and one of this year's third-round picks, Wake Forest's Brandon Ghee. And there is Jones, a guy flashing what Zimmer calls first-round skills.
But how early is it?
Zimmer will tell you.
"In four days of practice in what I've watched him do, he looks very good. But it is four days and there's a long way to go. He's making progress," he said. "He's a talented athlete, no question about that. He got picked in the top 10 for a reason athletically. I've seen first-round quality athletic ability."
But Sanders says it's never too early. He thinks Jones was doomed in Dallas in 2008 when he wasn't reinstated until training camp and missed the spring workouts following his year-long suspension in '07.
"They kind of just threw him out there and he had rust," Sanders says. "This is great for him. He'll be able to get acclimated to the guys and to the defense, something he didn't get to do in Dallas."
Something else he didn't have in Dallas. Neon Deion doesn't even put himself in the class of Jones' fianceé.
"Tish is the best cover corner I've ever seen; she's all over it," Sanders says. "She's been great for him. There was stuff coming out down here (in Dallas) that he was still doing the same stuff. That was a lie. He hasn't had a posse or cliques or homies for three years. I'm so proud of Adam as a man and as a father."
Sanders jokes that Jones "phone stalked me" every day last year he was out of the game. Just surviving that impressed him.
"A lot of guys would have let go. But he hung with it. He loves the game that much," Sanders says.
Jones calls Sanders "my dude," and the counsel seems to be settling in.
"He's told me that I've made a lot of dumb decisions, but there comes a time when you have to focus in and think about life," Jones said. "22, 23 years old, I had a lot of friends, everywhere I went, I wanted to keep 15, 20 people, but it's not like that anymore. Most of my cars are two-seaters. Me and my fianceé, we cruise around."
But he's smart enough to know that Cincinnati might as well be Dallas might as well be Nashville might as well be NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's Park Avenue office.
"I reached out to Mr. Goodell, left him a voicemail," Jones said. "Besides that, I'm just doing my part. It's better when you don't have to talk to him, I guess."
All eyes are going to be on those two-seaters.
"Low profile for Adam Jones is not in America," he said. "Maybe in Puerto Rico or something, or not even there. Where you want to say? The UK? I know there's an eye on me for all times."
Prime Time, on and off the field.
"So far, so good," Zimmer said.