NFL: Jones a pleasant surprise for Panthers

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 14, 2008

By Mike Cranston
Associated Press
CHARLOTTE ó The Carolina Panthers had gone through four punt returners when, out of desperation, they brought in Mark Jones six days before the season opener.
A journeyman who has been cut five times and was coming off a major knee injury, Jones figured to be around for only a few weeks as an emergency fill-in.
Two months later, Jones has not only stuck as a punt returner, he’s added kickoff duties. And after returning a punt 55 yards and a kickoff 59 yards in a win over Oakland on Sunday, Jones has cemented his status and rejuvenated a return team that had been one of the NFL’s worst.
“He’s done a fantastic job for us,” coach John Fox said. “He’s a guy who was a late pickup for us due to injury. He’s a guy that works hard. He’s the right kind of guy as far as his work ethic and the kind of guy who is learning his craft. I think he’s shown steady improvement all season.”
Jones bailed Carolina out of a tough spot. After ranking near the bottom of the league in punt and kickoff returns last season, second-year returner Ryne Robinson went down with the a knee injury in the first week of training camp.
His backup, Jason Carter, was later lost for the season with a knee injury. Free-agent pickup Ricardo Colclough never caught on at the position, then was cut after being arrested on a drunk driving charge.
The Panthers then signed Samie Parker but released him after he struggled in the final preseason game.
They then turned to the 5-foot-9 Jones.
General manager Marty Hurney remembered Jones having good days against the Panthers when he was in Tampa Bay. Jones had just been released by San Diego and figured to be an adequate filler until Robinson got back on the field.
Jones was far from spectacular early, avoiding a bad turnover in an early season game when Carolina recovered a punt that accidentally bounced off him. But Jones slowly started picking up more yards on his returns. His part-time job turned into a full-time gig when the Panthers tired of Robinson’s slow recovery and placed him on injured reserve.
“Be dependable, that was my main concern,” Jones said. “It wasn’t about if somebody was hurt or if it was a temporary thing. I knew coming in once I got my hands on it, I knew what my abilities are, so I just had to make the best of it.”
Jones added the kickoff duties last month after Jonathan Stewart took a big hit and Fox decided to shield his rookie running back from further injury risks.
A straight-ahead runner, Jones has impressed. After his two big returns Sunday, he’s averaging 27.8 yards on 10 kickoff returns and 12.3 yards on 27 punt returns. Last year, Robinson averaged 8.7 yards on punts and 23 yards on kickoffs as Carolina ranked 28th in the league in starting field position following kickoffs.
“It feels really good, especially coming in and helping this team win,” Jones said. “That was my main thing coming in here just to help get this team better. I just want to keep doing that.”
Jones is also happy to be back after suffering a torn left patellar tendon last season for Tampa Bay against Detroit ó Carolina’s opponent Sunday.
The Buccaneers, who had cut their 2004 seventh-round pick three times, decided not to re-sign him in the offseason as he recovered from surgery. Jones then signed with San Diego even though he knew he had little chance of beating out Darren Sproles.
But the Chargers allowed him to get some returns in and shake off any lingering doubts he had with the knee.
“I knew if I could get over that I would be fine,” Jones said. “I took that first hit, running drills and running routes, and I knew it was OK and I would be fine with that.”
Two days after he was released by the Chargers, he was with Carolina. Now the 28-year-old Jones has quickly blended in with a close-knit unit that has already matched last season’s win total. Jones even got his first NFL reception when he caught a 19-yard pass against Kansas City in the emergency role of No. 3 receiver after D.J. Hackett left with a knee injury.
The attention Jones has received this week has caused him to get some ribbing from his teammates. But perhaps that shows he has finally found a home after seven stints with four teams.
“I was told once you get your hand on the steering wheel, don’t let go,” Jones said. “That’s my mentality right now.”