Daily Herald
Healthy Jones feels like himself again and is eager to contribute
By Bob LeGere | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 8/5/2009 12:00 AM

BOURBONNAIS - It has taken awhile, but the Bears finally have the Kevin Jones they were hoping to get when they signed him shortly before the start of last year's training camp.

That Kevin Jones was not fully recovered, mentally or physically, from knee surgery at the end of the 2007 season.

But this Kevin Jones looks an awful lot like the 2004 Kevin Jones who rushed for 1,133 yards as a rookie with the Detroit Lions, who drafted him in the first round (30th overall) out of Virginia Tech.

That year Jones averaged 4.7 yards per carry, and in 2006 he caught 61 passes for 520 yards, even though he missed the final four games with a fractured foot.

But last year, his first with the Bears, he averaged a measly 3.2 yards on 34 carries, and he had only 4 carries for 2 yards in the final 10 games. He had just 2 catches for 5 yards all season.

Jones admits he wasn't all the way back from his injury.

"In certain instances, when I had guys coming low at me, I tried to protect myself," he said. "You should do that anyway as a back, but I did a little extra last year."

Still, the Bears were confident enough in his ability to bounce back this year that they signed him to a two-year deal worth $3.5 million in the off-season.

He almost looks like a different player, making sharper cuts, showing more of a burst out of those cuts and flashing better top-end speed.

"He's quicker, he's faster, and he's playing with more confidence," offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "He's healthy. He's not tentative on the knee. He's just in better shape."

The knee injury has been pushed further into the past and further into the back of Jones' mind, and he has slimmed down some, too.

"I lost about 15 pounds," he said. "It's that and being another year removed from the surgery. I just feel good, blessed."

If the Bears are to be more effective on offense this year, they'll need Jones to provide some quality downtime for featured running back Matt Forte.

"We want to play more than one running back," coach Lovie Smith said. "We're a running team. You need more than one running back. Kevin is healthy now. He's played at a high level in the league for a long time, and he's confident right now.

"He knows he's a good football player."

Jones had 13 carries for 45 yards in Game 2 last season and then 10 attempts for 36 yards in Week 6 against his former Lions teammates. After that he was the forgotten man, as Forte took over. Jones never got a chance to break a sweat, but he knows he wasn't the player he is now.

"Looking back and comparing now to then, I know I wasn't 100 percent," he said. "It was (lack of) opportunity and the knee. A little of both."

At 26, Jones still is young enough to recapture his youth, and the opportunity will be there this season.

"He'll be a guy to spell Matt in our base package," Turner said. "He knows our system now a lot better. He's going to be productive for us. He's going to have a pretty good role for us."

It's not the glamour role Jones enjoyed in Detroit, but all things considered, he's happy to have it.

"I've always been the starting running back, always been the guy," Jones said. "It was kind of hard sitting back (last year), but it humbles you, and sometimes you need that. I'm humble right now, and I'm just trying to earn my spot."

Forte had 379 touches last season, and he seems to thrive on hard work, but he also realizes a more effective backup is a valuable commodity.

"You need another running back, and he's a lot more in shape this year and he got over his knee injury, so that helps both of us out," Forte said. "It means that we can both be effective in the running game and also in the passing game."