PHILADELPHIA — Tebucky Jones is actually one hell of a guy.
He came to the Patriots as a well established family man, a husband and father of three. He made one transition in college, from running back to safety. Then the Patriots draft him and make him switch positions again, and he comes off as “wanting to do whatever this team wants me to do”.
He was only too eager to learn the position of cornerback. The Patriots, obviously impressed with his natural athletic ability at the 1998 scouting combine, thought enough of Jones to trade Jimmy Hitchcock to the Minnesota Vikings for a fifth round pick on draft day. Hitchcock, who had a checkered Patriot career but seemed to flourish under Pete Carroll, was suddenly deemed expendable when Bobby Grier selected the tall safety from Syracuse.
Yet perhaps no Patriot player has been more maligned in the past two years than Jones. Through it all, Jones has taken it all in with dignity and professionalism. Instead of whining about “why doesn’t anyone like me or believe in me?”, he stoically goes about his way, trying like crazy to learn a position that perhaps only Carroll thinks he can eventually do.
To be honest, I like Jones. But this guy has yet to show me or anyone that he will ever play cornerback. And I have yet to be shown that Bobby Grier didn’t waste a draft pick on this guy, that we’d have been better off with Vonnie Holliday or Donovan Darius.
On Sunday, Jones will draw his first NFL start. If you had to pick a team in which to “throw him to the lions”, the Philadelphia Eagles are a pretty good choice. Even with Donovan McNabb (who will not start Sunday), it’s still a safe play.
Carroll’s hand is forced thanks to Ty Law’s hand. Law’s already broken hand was broken some more last Sunday at Indianapolis. Law had surgery to move three pins in his hand, and may not be available until a mythical playoff berth is secured by the Patriots.
There are some who might have preferred to see Kato Serwanga get the shot, but considering how things have played out these past two years, starting Jones is really the way to go. Philadelphia provides a low-potency offense, a nice way for Jones to get used to regular duty.
The real common sense lies beneath all this. People cannot forget that Jones was a first round draft choice, and with that goes a lot higher expectations out of a player. Given the choice between the free agent Serwanga and the first rounder Jones, you have to make Jones show Patriot Nation that he’s got game.
Carrying this a step further, Carroll and his staff, as well as Grier and Bob Kraft, have to see if this “experiment” should be declared a success or a failure. Jones has to start showing people that he can actually play this position that he was groomed for. Carroll himself declared that “the teaching is over, time to see if he can do it”.
For his part, Jones is up to the challenge. He remains calm, and understands the difficulty of his position. Playing behind Law and Steve Israel has, by Jones’ own admission, not allowed him to really develop the cover skills needed to be a successful cornerback.
His safety skills remain intact. He displayed good pass rushing skills against Dallas. He is a very good tackler, as evidenced by his play on special teams. He is big (6-2, 216), and was drafted primarily for his potential to cover tall receivers in the NFL.
But what Jones has not been able to do yet is to show the exact physical skills needed to play cornerback in the NFL. Jones may be able to hit hard and tackle, but that means nothing when a wide receiver puts a quick fake on you and whizzes by like an SST jet.
Jones’ biggest problem is that he is not agile enough to turn quickly and react to fakes and quick hitches in receiver patterns. Experts have noted that he doesn’t possess the ability to turn his hips quickly, an important ability in staying with speedy receivers. This would force Jones into being a strictly zone-type corner, needing to give a fair cushion to his opponent.
This zone-type style would contradict what Carroll envisioned Jones to be. Carroll made some folks chuckle when he referred to Jones as a “press corner”, but in theory it makes sense. Law and Israel can play a pressing style because they have the speed and agility to stay with fast receivers in man coverage. It is when the Patriots play this style in the secondary that they are at their defensive best. Putting in Jones, who might be better suited in a zone, goes counter to this.
Therefore, Jones must demonstrate that he indeed can, given a full share of real game experience, display or develop the ability to play the press style that Carroll wants him to. If more reps are what Jones needs to better his ability to turn his hips quicker and react accordingly to pass routes, this is the best time for him to do it.
One thing that more game experience will hopefully eradicate will be his penchant for interfering with his receiver. Many times a defender will do that when beaten badly if he thinks it will save a touchdown. But Jones has done this in most any situation where he sees that he is clearly beaten. The receiver gets by him, so Jones runs back and just grabs the guy.
It stands to reason that if Jones does learn to cover his man tighter and more cleanly, the interfering will naturally go away. And we’re not talking about illegal contact beyond five yards of the line of scrimmage which is a mere five yard penalty and a first down. This is full-blown interference. Jones is better known for these plays than for smothering receivers legally.
Jones will likely draw Terrence Small, and Koy Detmer will fill in for McNabb at quarterback. This is quite a bit better than Testaverde-Johnson, Manning-Harrison, Flutie-Moulds or Marino-Gadsden. Jones will be afforded the luxury of feeling out a whole game in a non-pressure situation.
The Patriots and Eagles rarely meet. They haven’t played since 1990, and the Pats have never won here at the Vet. They’ll be favored on Sunday by three to end that string. The unfamiliarity Jones has of the NFL in general will be offset by the Eagles’ unfamilarity of the Patriots in general.
Whatever happens, Carroll, Grier and Kraft had better be watching carefully with both eyes open. The time is at hand to figure out what to do with Jones for the long haul. Either the experiment is a flop and Jones belongs back at safety, or the draft pick is a flop and they have egg all over their faces.
Chances are that Jones will at least stick as a safety. Jones will do whatever the team wants, he is a high quality person. But the time to figure out if he can play cornerback at all is right now. There are lots of folks out there who are already convinced that Jones is no cornerback, and never will be one.
Rest assured that Jones will do everything he can to show the world that he can play the position, which he himself calls “the second toughest position on the field” behind quarterback. Nobody will ever accuse Jones of being stupid or being a slacker. This guy is trying like crazy to make this experiment succeed.
And nobody out there in Patriot Nation wants it to fail. But this is a case where “want” has nothing to do with it. Either he can or he can’t. At least we’ll soon find out, once and for all.