JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - It wasn't long into his career as a professional that Maurice Jones Drew explained that he'd play with a chip on his shoulder.
"I'm wearing 32 to remind myself that every team passed on my in the first round," he explained in his first meeting with the media as a rookie. "I'll make them all regret it."
I thought it was strange then that he picked 32, including the Jaguars among the teams he'd make regret not selecting him with their first pick. (That year, the Jaguars took Marcedes Lewis, MJD's teammate at UCLA in the first round.)
Why not wear 31?
Nonetheless it set the tone for his often combative relationship with all of the aspects of the game that happen outside the lines. Jones-Drew was a good teammate by all accounts, and his talent was undeniable. Hard working, strong, fast, hard to tackle, it didn't take long for him to take the majority of the workload and become the featured back in Jacksonville. His ascendency to that spot is the reason Fred Taylor's career ended in New England. The Jaguars didn't think the two could share time. They said at the time they didn't think Fred could accept a complementary role. But it was Jones Drew who didn't want to share the spotlight.
Once established as the starter, Maurice did his workouts in California, eschewing off-season conditioning in Jacksonville and voluntary mini-camps in favor of his own routine. And there was no doubting his success. He showed up ready to play, in great shape, and seemed to be durable to the extreme considering his punishing running style and as often as he was asked to carry the load.
He was a threat every time he touched the ball. Problem was, during most of his career in Jacksonville he was the only threat. Struggling to find consistency at quarterback and a passing game that could stretch the field, the Jaguars relied on MJD to run between the tackles, to be the player who could get to the edge and catch the ball "in space" as well.
More than once, Maurice was willing to express displeasure with the money he was making, how he was treated by the media, and the overall perception of who he was.
On the other hand, he was generous with his time and his money. He didn't hide from reporters when things weren't going so well. He usually gave thoughtful answers and seemed to enjoy the banter, generally considering himself the smartest guy in the room.
"I went to UCLA," he admonished one scribe during a briefing regarding his late arrival to camp. "If I have to explain some of the words I'm using and what I'm saying, I'll do that."
Jones Drew's foundation focused on kids who didn't have much. He distributed backpacks before school started and toys at Christmas. While the foundation full-timers and Jaguars staffers were involved in organizing the activities, Maurice was always there, talking to kids, taking pictures, offering words of encouragement. I was struck at these times that the warmer, less edgy side of MJD was reserved for these situations and time with his family. It was never put on display otherwise.
He was a guest on our Monday night show "The End Zone" a couple of times early in his career, and was always pleasant, on time and engaging. But those kinds of appearances stopped as his career progressed. Maybe that's necessary in the very competitive world of professional football.
With two years left on his contract with the Jaguars, MJD decided it was the right time to look for a contract extension.
It had been a disappointing year for the Jaguars on the field with the lone bright spot Jones Drew's performance as the leading rusher in the league. "It was about our only goal," one offensive lineman told me at the end of the year. "Without that, it would have been hard to come to work everyday."
It's was a tumultuous time for the team with a new head coach and new ownership. "This is the business side of the game," Maurice explained. "It's as much a part of the game as blocking and tackling." To make his point, Jones Drew held out of training camp, trying to force the team's hand.
It didn't work.
New owner Shad Khan's business principles were on display when he declined to negotiate a new deal with Maurice. Head Coach Mike Mularkey lamented that MJD wasn't in camp but said, "That's something I can't control. We'll welcome him back when he gets here." Jones Drew did eventually report, in shape and ready to play: without a new deal.
"No hard feelings," he said. "That was something I thought I needed to do. I'm here now and ready to go."
It was obvious he was ready and stepped into the starting lineup as if nothing had ever happened. But as is the case more often than not when running backs don't have a training camp to get their body ready for the pounding they take in games, MJD was injured during the second week of the season early in the Oakland game on the road. Whether his injury was misdiagnosed or the Jaguars were just overly optimistic, Jones Drew stayed on the active roster until the end of the year when it was obvious he'd need some kind of surgery. He had suffered a serious soft tissue injury that would require a long rehab and no guarantee that he'd ever be the same.
Again, MJD did his off-season work and rehab away from Jacksonville. When he returned for a mandatory mini-camp, he was noticeably heavier. "I'll be at my playing weight when it counts," he sternly told us in the locker room. "Why does everybody always doubt me? I've never shown up not ready." To his credit, the next time we saw him he was noticeably more fit, although not quite back to his normal playing weight. He again stepped into the starting lineup under another new head coach, Gus Bradley. And while he showed flashes of his old self, he got caught from behind more often than not and was missing that second burst that was his trademark in his heyday. He'd explode into the line and on the other side he'd get into a faster gear.
That was gone.
Jordan Todman and Denard Robinson got some of the tailback carries as the team shifted to a "running back by committee" formula.
It was bad timing for Maurice. He was in a contract year, coming off an injury and wasn't as productive as even he expected. "I need to work on my speed in the offseason," he told us. "I still see myself as the starter,' he followed up with, kind of a code for "I'll want starter money in my next deal."
With that history behind him and a football leadership that had no emotional ties to him, it wasn't surprising that GM Dave Caldwell announced that they were going to let Maurice "test the free-agent waters." That's also kind of a code for, "We couldn't work out a deal for the money he wants. Let him try and get that somewhere else." So free agency started and MJD wasn't quite a hot commodity.
The Jaguars were interested in him coming back in a complimentary role, willing to pay him for that effort, not starter's money. "It's still possible," Caldwell said as late as this past Monday at the owners meeting in Orlando. Caldwell knew at the time that MJD had visited several clubs (reportedly Miami and Pittsburgh among them) and hadn't been happy with the role or the money being offered. They'd take him back, but on their terms.
Instead, Jones Drew went back to Oakland for a second time and signed a reported three-year deal with the Raiders. It's his hometown and ironically he'll be replacing the spot on the Oakland roster that had been filled by another former Jaguar, Rashad Jennings last year. (Jennings signed with the Giants as a free agent)
So you can call it a win-win. Maurice gets to go back home and the Jaguars are upgraded at RB with the acquisition of Toby Gerhardt in free agency. They expect Todman and Robinson to share some of the load, not unlike most NFL teams do at the running back position.
No question he was the one bright star in a very dark time for the Jaguars, particularly on offense. I just wonder sometimes had he approached it a little differently, what might have been.
I wonder if he does as well.
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