Keeping up with the Jones' fresh start


Matt Jones

It just didn't look like the Jones kid would try full speed at times.  There would be this lazy fly ball to center field and the coach would start screaming at Matt to run, run, run. And before anyone knew it, he was under it in plenty of time for another catch.

"I can still hear my dad yelling at Matt for jogging," said Clarke Moore the other day of those little league games. "He's a long strider. Always has been. And that's just the way he is. He's a great guy. He wants to win and he's a trustworthy friend. He's just a laid back dude. But the last couple of months I've seen a fire in his eyes. He knows this is his last chance. I think the Bengals got a diamond in the rough."

Moore gave Jones the diamond when he was his best man back on March 13 in Camden, Ark., when the preacher Phillips married his daughter Caroline and Jones, the Bengals' newest project who is also looking for the NFL honeymoon he never had. Two weeks later Jones got his other new start when the Bengals began their offseason workouts, where he sounded like a man refreshed.

"I think it will help," Jones said of married life. "I'm not 22 anymore. I know I've grown up."

He turns 27 the day of the first round of the draft later this month, five years after the Jaguars took him with the 21st pick. Just like last month's ceremony, the 6-6, 220-pound Jones believes this NFL marriage has come at the right time in his life. After four seasons of learning the nooks and crannies of playing receiver, the experience could be ready to mature with a big-armed quarterback and two 1,000-yard receivers he never had in Jacksonville.

Back in February it seemed it took him less than an hour to decide on Carson Palmer over Tennessee's Vince Young. The Bengals believe Jones still has close to his 4.37 combine speed. Throw in his leaping ability and sticky hands and there is some belief he could possibly give them a portion of what Chris Henry did. Long plays. Big plays. Covergaes that have to at least account for him.

He hasn't done it yet. Not consistently, anyway, and Jones flat out did nothing last year when he didn't get a job. But he reminds you that in his last season 47 of his catches went for first downs.

"I feel like I can get to the chains; I can move them," Jones said. "And I can be a target in the red zone as a taller guy.

"My last year when I had 65 catches, I felt that way. I felt like I had finally started clicking," he said of that transition to receiver. "I felt every time I went out there they couldn't cover me and I could get open and catch the ball."

That was in 2008, when Jones was arrested on felony possession of a controlled substance in July and later jailed for a week for violating terms of a drug program that expunged his record.  It has been one mistake off the field, yet it has dogged him enough that he didn't hook on with a team last year. The violation reportedly came when he had a beer playing golf.

"Not a big deal for you or for me. But a big deal for him and that's the stuff he has to realize," said his father. "I think he does now. I make mistakes. You make mistakes. When I got the call I was the happiest guy in the world. He could have been dead."

Steve Jones, a retired coach and civics teacher, has spent a lifetime disciplining kids with his last stop at Van Buren Junior High where he coached Matt and Clarke. So has his wife, Paula, who took her master's degree across town to Fort Smith, Ark., to teach English and French at Northside High School. After the arrest, Steve again reminded Matt of how important it is to choose the people around him.

"In the end, they're the ones that usually take you down," Steve Jones said.

Matt listens because whenever he's asked, his father has always been there to give an answer.

"My dad was really good about leaving it on the field," he said. "If I had a question about something, he'd answer it. But it was a father-son relationship first, not player-coach.

"I have the best parents in the world. They raised me to know right from wrong. I know what to do. I did something that was really stupid. When you make a mistake you've got to learn from it and move on and put it in the past and that's what I've been able to do."

Matt Jones' past is Steve Jones' past.

When they were driving to the wedding, Moore remembers Steve telling him that Matt was two and a half when he started throwing rolled-up socks to him. But that he would make sure the toddler caught them over his shoulder like a football. That was about the time Paula became bedridden when she was pregnant with the twin girls and Steve ended up taking Matt to everything he coached. They became inseparable on the sidelines until Matt left Van Buren Junior after ninth grade to go to the high school.

Except this one time when Matt was in fifth grade and the Van Buren seventh-grade team was continually getting hammered on the sweep. Steve didn't see it, but his assistant grabbed Matt and pushed him on the field to try and stop it.

"We'd given up like seven yards, 14 yards, 20 yards," said Steve with a laugh. "But he got in there for a three-yard loss. He was big even then."

From then on his dad let Matt play cornerback and catch punts with the big kids until he got to seventh grade, and then he became the quarterback. Steve has to laugh because, yes, he has been known to be called intense and to be a go-getter on the practice field. He was a coach, after all. But the son came wired differently.

"Blame it on me," Steve joked. "Yeah, it could be frustrating at times, but he was always trying to win. That's just Matt. He's got a different kind of makeup. But let me tell you, when the lights come on ... and he was always that way. Always ready for the game."

Moore, who met Matt in fourth grade, still remembers the freckles and flat-top haircut and has the stories.

Matt Jones could dunk in the eighth grade. One time as a junior during a game in Fayetteville when Van Buren was undefeated, the coach didn't like how sluggish he came out and moved him from quarterback to receiver after the first couple of series. Moore remembers him grabbing six balls for about 200 yards. Once during a basketball game the coach benched Jones in the third quarter and Moore distinctly recalls him going for 26 points in the fourth quarter in a rampage that included some three-pointers.

"The coach knew how to get under his skin," Moore said.

Jones made certain he would stay at quarterback when he wasn't put back there after the Fayetteville game and transferred to his mother's school in Fort Smith for his senior year. That opened the door for a four-year career at the University of Arkansas in which he broke all kinds of school and SEC records for total offense and quarterback rushing.

Moore, now a bank vice president in Van Buren, went with him to Arkansas as a linebacker.

"I thought he abandoned me at Van Buren," he said of Jones' transfer. "But the guy's a true friend. We made all our recruiting visits together. We joked that we were going together as a package deal. I think it probably helped both of us that we did play together and stuck together after that."

Quarterback is a big part of why Jones's transition to NFL receiver was so rocky. It was a switch in which he admits he had trouble keeping focus.

"It was totally different, even practice," Jones said. "You run all day. Your conditioning has to be different. You're not the director. You're not saying, 'Do this, go here, we might be checking.' You're not into it that way. It's like you run, run, run, block. Then you run. You might get one pass thrown to you in the whole first half. When you're the quarterback, you touch the ball every play and that was the toughest thing. Staying focused and staying into the game. I always had the ball in my hand. I was able to control, feel more a part of it. You have to find other ways to do that. That was probably the toughest thing."

Plus, Jones wasn't all that comfortable with the mix of Jacksonville receivers. There was a lot of youth for a guy not only trying to learn the league, but also the position.

"In college and high school, it's a game. You and the receivers hang out and there's no worrying about, 'You're going to take my job. Am I going to have a paycheck next week?' " Jones said. "I had to learn that the first couple of years and when I got there, there really wasn't a veteran. Jimmy Smith was there for a year and that was it. You had a lot of young kids. When you're at this level, it's life or death every year. No one is really your buddy. We were young. All of a sudden you're trying to figure it out. I was immature, younger. So you grow up and learn to do that."

Moore said Jones appeared to be lonely in Jacksonville and that only Del Rio on the staff seemed to be behind him. He sees a different scenario in Cincinnati.

"He likes the idea of Carson throwing him the rock and the fact that Chad (Ochocinco) is going to be out there," Moore said. "He knows it's now or never and he's with a good offense. He went there because of those guys."

Jones said he watched tape of The Ocho early in his career because he was looking to emulate some of the taller receivers.

"He's what, 6-2? I would watch guys like that. Randy Moss. I was still adjusting," Jones said. His feet are amazing for someone 6-2. If I had feet like him, it'd be over. The way he can move his feet and get in and out of breaks and the separation from that was really good. That's something I've been working on is my feet. He's good with his routes. If he runs the curl route four times in one game, all four of them are going to look a little different and that's something you have to do. You can't just run your curl route 12 yards and come back. You've got to give them a little something and that little something still has to be on the same time as the quarterback."

Jones saw the headlines that the Bengals signed him despite having a bad workout at Paul Brown Stadium.

"I don't know where it came from, but I don't pay it much mind," Jones said. "That's why I don't listen to the media much. They gave me a job, didn't they? The coaches told me not to worry about it."

One coach who has seen Jones for awhile senses this is a kid a little more grown up now.

"I know I'm his dad," said Steve Jones, who has the socks to prove it. "But he can catch and he can run."

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