1-31-02, 6:35 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
NEW ORLEANS _From Street Free Agent to Super Bowl Starter: The Rod Jones Story.
Rams head coach Mike Martz delivered the network script just in time for the biggest TV day of the year Thursday when he named Jones his starting right tackle for Sunday's Super Bowl XXXVI here against the Patriots.
The move culminated Jones' Disney Channel season that began with him holed up in an Illinois hotel virtually certain he would retire a month after the Bengals released him.
The move also crushed Ryan Tucker, the starter at right tackle all season until he injured his ankle in the third quarter of the Jan. 6 regular-season finale.
The move also seemed to indicate that the Rams' coaches feel Jones, after struggling so badly as the Bengals starting left tackle last season, is simply the better right tackle at the moment to blunt New England's array of schemes with brute strength in St. Louis' bid for their second NFL title in three years.
Jones is getting ready for Patriots head coach Bill Belichick to test the new guy on the line with a bevy of blitzes that include picking off the tackles.
"Tuck still has an issue with his ankle," Martz said. "Rod played so well last week, he deserves this opportunity. Rod played exceptionally well."
With left tackle Orlando Pace sidelined until Friday with a sprained knee, Tucker and Jones, also hampered by a sore groin, were the tackles in Wednesday's practice at the Saints' facility. Tucker thought he had worked well enough to get the nod and was disappointed, but philosophical.
"Rod is going to have to be a lot better," Tucker said before Thursday's practice. "Yesterday, he really couldn't even push off that leg. We'll see.
"I'm happy for Rod. He's playing well," Tucker said. "He's playing with confidence. I practiced the whole day. . .I thought I did a good job. I had two practices in about a month and they kind of expected a little more out of you in the Super Bowl. Rod has three weeks of solid practice."
Jones said the groin he injured in last week's NFC championship is improving and that it shouldn't be a problem. He may be numb to any kind of pain because he's been so happy all week as one of the best feel-good stories of this or any other Super Bowl. He didn't blink when asked if he could have handled this assignment a year ago.
"No. I know I couldn't," Jones said. "My confidence was terrible. I doubted
myself. I doubted whether or not I could play in this league any more. What a difference a day makes."
The day turned out to be a long day's journey into night. It all began before the 2000 season with a three-year, $9 million deal in Cincinnati. A balky knee marred his off-season training and his in-season problems earned him a benching and eventual release from the Bengals this past June.
Then when he felt empty and unfulfilled after the first day of training camp with his new team, Jones mulled retirement until the Rams sent him for a three-week stay with a sports psychologist.
But two weeks ago in the playoffs against the Packers, Jones started his second game of the season. In an Oct. 21 game against the Jets, Jones started a game the Rams punished New York for 234 rushing yards.
Then last week, Jones moved from right tackle to left when Pace got hurt as running back Marshall Faulk went over 150 yards rushing.
"It's crazy. I don't know how to respond," Jones said.
He knows the right response isn't getting too emotional and too excited and losing his focus. Like he did last year on the last play of the first half with the Bengals leading the Dolphins, 13-3.
For some reason , he tried a new pass-blocking technique on Miami's Jason Taylor at that point in the game and Jones whiffed on him. Taylor drilled quarterback Akili Smith from the blindside, popped the ball loose, and ran 29 yards for the game-altering touchdown.
Also last year, after the Patriots, of all teams, went by him for what amounted to a game-ending sack that injured quarterback Scott Mitchell's knee, he had to leave the game for an ambulance trip with an accelerated heart rate.
"I have a tendency to get real excited," Jones said. "I love to run the ball. I love to grind it out. If I get too excited too hyped up, too carried away . . . In this type of game, your mind is as important as the physical. You have to concentrate. You have to focus. I don't want to lose perspective. It's still a game. You still have to play for 60 minutes going against physical guys."
And he won't get spooked when he sees the Pats Sunday. Not after spelling Tucker briefly in the 24-17 win on Nov. 18 in Foxboro.
"I fought those ghosts already," Jones said.
The mortals he has to face are end Bobby Hamilton, the Pats' sack leader with seven, and outside linebacker Willie McGinest, who had six sacks. McGinest, who plays pretty much only on passing downs, doesn't have the speed he once had at 6-5, 270 pounds. Hamilton, 30, is having the season of a lifetime for a role player. But at 280 pounds, the 340-pound Jones may be able to roll him in the running game. Jones says he's actually heavier than when he slimmed down after the Bengals' 2000 minincamp, from 350 to about 328.
But it will be making sure Rams quarterback Kurt Warner doesn't keep getting hit as he triggers the NFL's most lethal weapons that will define Jones' day.
"They pick the tackle and things like that," Jones said. "They send a linebacker or a safety through and pick you where the end goes back around. Belichick, with his defensive mind, he s trying to do so many things.
"You just have to keep your base," Jones said. "Keep a foundation and use your hands. You have to keep your shoulders square and see the whole field."
But Jones loves to run the ball. In fact, one of the three Super Bowls he distinctly remembers watching is when Redskins running back John Riggins ran over the Raiders.
The other two? When the Bengals played the 49ers in his hometown of Detroit in Super Bowl XVI and when Redskins quarterback Doug Williams lit up the Broncos in Super Bowl XXII. Never mind that he was only 8, but he remembers the Bengals playing the 49ers in the Silverdome while it was freezing and snowy outside.
"I saw it on TV, but those are the games you remember," Jones said. "You're not going to forget watching your first Super Bowl."
Jones knows it will be a lot of kids' first Super Bowls Sunday when he tees it up. But he's trying to treat it like a coaching clinic.
"I'm going to just be me and do what I do and that's enough," Jones said. "It's all about technique. It's not even about size and strength. It's just leverage and technique."
Former Rams tackle Jackie Slater had some soothing words for him Wednesday from the man who has played the most NFL games ever on the offensive line.
"He told me the same thing," Jones said. "In general, once you learn technique and learn what you're doing, you can play it for a long time because you can rely on your technique, use your hands, use your instincts, and don't get turned around."
But he knows it's all been quite a turnaround. Shortly after a reporter told him that Martz had tapped him to start the Super Bowl, Jones smiled as he has all week for the media whirling about in the Hilton Hotel ballroom.
"I'm going to sit here," he said, "and just take it in."