FAB 2. RoJo Is Improving
The game of football has changed so much over the past two decades that I’ve covered the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Twenty years ago teams used to value a 1,000-yard rusher, knowing that you couldn’t make the playoffs without one. Having an enforcer strong safety that would lay the boom on receivers roaming across the middle of the field was just as important as having a lockdown cover cornerback or a pass-rushing defensive end.
Coaches like Sam Wyche (1992-95) got four years with losing records before getting fired. Now, if a coach has two bad years – or in some cases one bad season – he gets fired. Just ask Greg Schiano or Lovie Smith.
Draft picks like Eric Curry, a defensive end that was the first-round pick in 1993 who produced just 12.5 sacks, used to get five years to develop before the bust label was applied. Now, in this on-demand, microwave world we live in today where people no longer have the patience for the old adage “patience is a virtue,” any draft pick that does not make an immediate impact as a rookie is somehow labeled a “bust.”
Such is the case for Tampa Bay’s first two draft picks – defensive tackle Vita Vea and running back Ronald Jones II. Vea tore a calf muscle on the first day of pads in training camp, missed the whole preseason and the first three games before making his NFL debut nearly 10 months after he played in his last football game, which was the Fiesta Bowl on January 1 when Washington played Penn State.
Obviously, he’s a bust, says Bucs fans/NFL Twitter.
Jones struggled to get clean looks in a disastrous preseason in which he rushed for 22 yards on 28 carries (0.8 avg.). Sources tell me that while running behind the second-string and third-string offensive lines, Jones was hit in the backfield on nearly half of those carries, which stunted his progress.
“Yeah it was tough,” Jones said. “It was just frustrating and a little bit disappointing, you know, but not getting down on myself at the same time, too. For me, it was just knowing that there are little things I can do to be up in practice every week and try to carry it over to the game.”
Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said how difficult it is to develop struggling players once the season starts because the train starts moving when the games starting counting for real.
“That’s a great question – ask Ryan Griffin that question – he’s been trying to do it for six years,” Koetter said, noting that Griffin has been in the NFL for six seasons and never seen a regular season snap. “It’s hard. That’s a hard thing. That’s the rules we’re living by. That’s hard once the season starts. That’s why you’ve got preseason and training camp. You talk about opportunity – however many practices we have, however many preseason games we have – those are those opportunities. You have to establish some kind of a depth chart and then once the season starts, it’s hard.
Jones’ preseason was so bad that the Bucs couldn’t justify putting him on the active 46-man roster on game days, which was a clear indication that he was a bust, according to Bucs fans/NFL Twitter.
If there was Twitter back in 1997 during Ronde Barber’s disastrous rookie season, Bucs fans/NFL Twitter would have run the third-round pick out of Tampa Bay because he was clearly a bust.
Jones was finally activated for the Bears game, and due to the lopsided score at halftime, Koetter used the second half as an extra preseason game for Jones with the score so out of reach. After dropping a catchable screen pass in the first half, Jones rushed for 29 yards on 10 carries (2.9 avg.) and caught one pass for minus-1 yard rushing.
Not great against a stout Bears defense, but progress over what he showed in the preseason.
“I think his development is progressing, and obviously it’s been progressing to the point where we feel the need to get him in the games to be able to make us hit some plays,” Bucs running backs coach Tim Spencer said. “He came from a system that wasn’t quite as involved as ours. Anytime you have guys come in that haven’t been out of their comfort zone and being able to look around before the play starts and say, ‘Hey, I might have this guy if this guy does that.’ It takes a minute. I think he’s getting to the point where he’s comfortable and I think he’s got a good grasp of the system. We’re looking for him to make some plays.”
At USC, Jones wasn’t asked to do much in the way of pass protection and blitz pick up, or as a receiver in the running game. Both of those duties are requirements to play in Koetter’s system – or any modern day offensive system in the NFL for that matter.
“Most definitely, and yeah I did it at USC, but not as much to this standpoint,” Jones said. “The big thing definitely is blitz pick-up recognition and actually identifying everything on the pick-up. That’s half the battle.”
At USC, Jones routinely torched weak PAC 12 defenses like Arizona, Arizona State, California, Washington State and Oregon and had huge holes and the wide side of the field with college hash marks to run to. With 4.41 speed, Jones outran linebackers and defensive backs and turned a six-yard gain past the line of scrimmage into a 60-yard touchdown by blowing past slower defenders or benefitting from defenders taking poor angles or missing tackles.
Jones’ adjustment to the game speed in the NFL where every player is fast hasn’t been a smooth transition.
“Oh yeah, this is a much higher level of intensity,” Jones said. “It was great to finally have my number called and be out there and get a chance to make some plays, and it was finally good to get my feet wet [in the regular season]. Yeah, the holes are smaller and your decision-making time goes down – all that stuff. The hashes in college football give you a wide side of the field. In the NFL, it’s a different game, so I’m just getting adjusted to that and getting used to it.”
At 5-foot-11, 209 pounds, Jones isn’t a small back, but he’s not necessarily a big back, either. Some at One Buccaneer Place tell me they would like to see Jones hit the hole faster, while others tell me that they would like to see Jones hit the hole harder with more power in an attempt to break initial tackles and get to the second level where he can showcase his speed.
“He hasn’t that many carries, and it’s a total team game, obviously,” Spencer said, referring to Jones not getting a lot of clean looks dating back to the preseason. “I never thought he wasn’t hitting the hole fast enough. He may need to press the hole a little bit more, but in terms of speed, he’s fine there.
“The holes close up faster, and there are guys that are just as fast as he is [on defense]. Making decisions – good, sound, quick decisions is the thing that is going to give you that edge. If you have a guy that is thinking too much all the time that slows the whole process down. We feel comfortable with the things that we know he can do. He’s getting better at the whole game. You’ll see him out here after practice that he knows he needs to work on, which is a plus. I feel good about that part of the process.”
Spencer is referring to Jones’ hands at the end of his quote, and he showed improvement in his second NFL game last week at Atlanta, catching three passes for 16 yards, including a 10-yard gain.
Baby steps, but progress nonetheless.
“I think I’ve got to do a better job of making people miss because a lot of times the offensive line is going to account for the guys in the box and the tight ends and receivers got their man,” Jones said. “As a running back, you’ve got to be special and make a guy miss.”
The Bucs continue to believe in Jones and feel he has the tools – and perhaps just as important, the work ethic – to be a special player. It’s just going to take some time.
“He’s fine,” Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. “He’s only going to continue to get better and he has shown that. He’s continued to work awfully hard at it, so it’s week-to-week for everybody that we have – we said that a few weeks ago.
“I think he continues to improve and will continue because he’s got talent. He’s got a chance to be a really good player. Now, it’s just putting it all together.”