COMMENTARY I By David M. Levin
Last year at this time, Maurice Jones-Drew wasn’t at the Jacksonville Jaguars training camp. The (then) reigning NFL rushing leader drew a line in the sand and demanded a new owner (Shad Khan) open his checkbook and sign the team’s best and most important player to a new contract that had two years remaining on it.
For 38 days, it was a mantra. Jones-Drew remained as far away from Jacksonville as he could, doing the radio circuit across the country, talking about breaking Emmitt Smith’s NFL rushing record, but never once about the contract situation that became a media distraction if not a distraction for teammates who were making it happen in the hot Florida sun.
When the UCLA running back did return to camp and the team, days before the preseason, he looked different, wanted to avoid the obvious questions and said the reason to essentially hold his franchise hostage was because of, “business.”
It was basically a cold way to tell the media who covered his press conference he was not a happy camper.
Six games into the 2012-13 season, Jones-Drew injured his foot on a tackle made by Oakland’s Tommy Kelly. Jones-Drew was lost for the season, the Jaguars season was lost and the surgery to repair the foot the team needs to be healthy, happened later than expected.
Fast forward a year. The summer heat is still hot in Florida, the Jacksonville Jaguars are a team in complete rebuild and Jones-Drew is in camp, cleared to practice with the team he did not seem to want to be a part of during 2012 training camp.
Jones-Drew has been working in the offseason in California at UCLA (where he went back to school to earn his degree) and in south Florida with trainers to make sure his foot was properly healed and his mindset was conducive for the upcoming season. It’s been an offseason of both risk and reward for Jones-Drew, an accusation by a nightclub bouncer of an alleged assault could have derailed his progress, who comes into camp looking to progress at a decent pace and get his hands around a football from either Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne.
According to a report on cbssportsline.com, Jones-Drew was pretty clear how he feels about this time of year.
“Now it’s back to football. It’s a long time coming,” Jones-Drew told reporters Tuesday while also saying the Memorial Day incident was “totally behind me.”
If he puts that all behind him, concentrates on football and helping the Jaguars, who need his leadership and his bowling ball style of running to offset major deficiencies in the team’s passing game, then this could be a special season for the 5’7″ runner.
The team has to feel it has scored a small victory of sorts with Jones-Drew since he was injured last season with two years remaining on his contract and being injured and recovering going into the final year of his current deal.
No hold out, a real commitment to rehabbing his foot and a desire to prove he can still be the runner that 32 teams passed on in the first round of the 2006 NFL Draft, leaving him to run with a chip on his shoulder.
The excitement of the upcoming season is not lost on his teammates or on the new coaching staff.
“I can’t wait to see what he can do, and I can’t wait to see what he can do in our total offense,” Fisch said earlier this month, as part of the cbssportsline.com story. “I keep asking Blaine and Chad [Henne], ‘Tell me about Mojo. What’s he like in the huddle? What’s it like being out there and seeing him hit the hole?’ They speak glowingly about him.”
Right now, the pieces of the puzzle are starting to fit in place for this team. While there are still questions about the play at quarterback, on the defensive line and in the secondary, running back is not a concern. That is a good thing. While decisions are still to be made about an upcoming salary negotiation, there is another chapter in this team’s future that has not been written yet. Whether or not Jones-Drew is part of the future has not been decided yet. Everyone in Jacksonville at EverBank Field is dealing with the here and now. And now, the Jaguars can begin their training camp with the knowledge their star running back and best player is ready to begin the season with practice.