Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Sad Case of Matt Jones

Those of you not obsessed with offseason moves by borderline playoff teams probably missed the fact that wide receiver Matt Jones was cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars yesterday. This comes four years after he was a first-round pick, almost a year after he was arrested for cocaine possession, and just a few days after he violated his plea agreement by drinking a couple beers. By almost any reckoning, he was a disappointment as a player, though his 2008 season was going very well until his suspension for the aforementioned blow.

So, once again: problem child player who never lived up to physical potential and never played anywhere near Pittsburgh cut by sort-of-good team. Why am I writing?

Because I remember when Matt Jones was running a 4.5 at the 2005 combine as a massive, intelligent, incredible quarterback-turned-receiving talent, and at least three of the authors of this blog were convinced he was going to be special, and that the Steelers should take him if he fell to them in the first round (he didn't, and the Steelers eventually took Heath Miller).

So, on this day of celebration, as the Steelers toast the new ambassador to Ireland, I am stuck wondering if we were wrong, if Matt Jones was always going to be a fuckup, and if he will always be a fuckup.

At least one person I know - who knows football much better than I do - is convinced Matt Jones was ruined by John Del Rio, who for years had giant receivers and refused to throw high to them or design schemes to take advantage of their physical gifts. In a system that didn't use the athletic freak, he languished, and, I suppose one could argue, got tired of being called a disappointment and developed a bad attitude.

If one agrees with that, then Jones would certainly have benefitted from the discipline and support of the Steelers system, and the intelligence and adaptability of coaches like Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians.

Of course, part of the reason Matt Jones was the subject of debate at the time was his character, which seemed laid-back and perhaps not that interested in football. While I saw no evidence of this, aside from his long hair and the fact that he seemed like he wasn't trying while running a 4.5, it was repeated as a fact - as such things are - by cognoscenti of the draft. If they were better informed than we were, and if they were right, then it's a good thing the Jags jumped on the grenade so that the Steelers grabbed Miller, who I believe we can call a success.

Really, this debate is one of those central ones that seems to be existential rather than sporting. Does situation matter as much as - or more than - individual ability? Is Matt Jones - or any of the countless other busts we could think of - a waste of a pick, or just a victim of a bad team?

While we'll never know which scenario is more accurate - and in fact, most people would agree it's somewhere in between - it bears thinking about, if for no other reason than we can wonder if the Steelers or some other team should sign him.

Jones will likely be suspended a further few games by the league, but he's still reasonably young and doesn't appear to have lost a step - some teams will be interested. But, given the trouble caused by talented-but-troubled receivers so far, it's likely that fewer teams will be interested than could use him on the field. In all liklihood, Matt Jones will wind up on the Raiders or Cincinattica or Dallas, where he'll be mostly renowned as a sideshow. I hope this isn't the case, but the odds of him making a comeback in some stable, effective system as a complementary part are pretty slim, if we take our cues from history.

I don't think the Steelers should run a charity for troubled talents, but I do hope they give Matt Jones an offer - even a lowball one - because he can help them on the field (we've lacked a big, physical fast receiver since Plax left). But also because he could probably help them more than he could help a lot of other teams, and because I want to believe that he could succeed in a system like that of the Steelers. And also because - like all pundits - I want very much to believe that I was right four years ago, and that the Matt Jones I saw in 2005 wasn't the screwup who didn't care about football, but the rare athletic talent who could thrive with a good quarterback and a coach who understood how best to use his talents.

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