FOXBOROUGH – Exactly 52 Saturdays ago, Chris Jones was at Doyt Perry Stadium in Bowling Green, Ohio, getting ready to face Eastern Michigan in a game which would see the defensive tackle record five tackles and 2½ sacks, part of a monster senior season that landed him on All-American teams.
Jones had 12.5 sacks and was named defensive player of the year in the Mid-American Conference, not exactly a popular path taken by many to a life in the NFL. But Jones knew that former Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor had gone to Akron, and that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger starred at Miami (Ohio). His dream of playing in the NFL, which started in high school, wasn’t about to be sidetracked because he chose a smaller college playing in a lower-tier conference. Jones held firm to the belief that if you’re good enough, no matter where you’re playing, the NFL would find you.
They found him. In fact, Jones has been passed around a bit: He was drafted in the sixth round by the Texans, who released him on cut-down day Aug. 31; claimed by the Buccaneers, who released him Sept. 10; and claimed by the Patriots a day later.
It would be unexpected and highly unlikely for a rookie with that kind of résumé to assume an immediate role with the Patriots’ defense. But Jones’s determination caught the coaches’ attention, and when defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly were lost with injuries, they never hesitated putting the former Falcon from Bowling Green on the field.
When asked if he could have envisioned all this a year ago, Jones thought for a few seconds before answering.
“The one thing I expected out of myself was to work hard every day. As far as the future, I don’t control that. God controls all that for me,” he said. “All I can do is the here and now. I knew if I played as well I could, then I would have a chance.
“I have my chance, and right now I’m just taking advantage of it.”
Jones is coming off the best — and worst — game of his career. He had two sacks last Sunday against the Jets, which gives him 3½ on the season, good for second on the team behind Chandler Jones’s 6½. But Chris Jones was also penalized in overtime for pushing teammate Will Svitek into the Jets’ offensive line during a field-goal attempt, in violation of a new rule instituted this season. The kick missed, but given 15 yards and a new set of downs, the Jets eventually beat the Patriots, 30-27.
The reaction to PushGate has been varied, with even Jets coach Rex Ryan and Patriots coach Bill Belichick offering an entertaining back-and-forth in the days after. Jones hasn’t paid attention to any of it.
“I’m not a big social media guy,” Jones said. “I’m just going to say that it’s in the past and I’m not really worried about it right now. But I honestly don’t know what the reaction was.”
Instead, Jones is focused on his next task, which comes Sunday against the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. With Wilfork gone for the season and Kelly ruled out for the third straight game with a knee injury, Jones’s snap count figures to be high again. He played in all 65 defensive snaps against the Saints, and all 91 against the Jets.
“Chris is a smart kid. He came in and picked things up pretty quickly,” Belichick said recently. “His playing time has increased a little bit each week. I think he’s athletic, he runs well, he has good playing strength, he has a little bit of quickness in the pass rush. He’s got decent skills in there.”
Fellow rookie defensive tackle Joe Vellano also singled out Jones’s speed and smarts. The 6-foot-2-inch, 305-pound Jones will proudly take credit for the smarts; he’s not gloating about his speed.
Then again: “I think I’m quick. Wouldn’t say I’m God’s gift to speed, but I can move a little bit with my size,” he said. “I play defensive line, you’ve got to be strong. Speed, strength, those are the basic things, and you need maneuverability, because you get twisted different ways.”
But being twisted, at least in this case, means that Jones is out there playing. Given an opportunity, he’s produced, like he did in high school and college. Different stage, going up against bigger, faster, stronger, smarter offensive linemen, but similar results.
“I knew I wanted to play football, and thought that playing in the NFL would be the greatest thing. That was my dream,” Jones said. “Whatever I can do to help our team win, whether that be getting double-teamed and not make any plays, or a chance to have a one-on-one and make a play, I’m doing whatever I can to help the team win.”