TAMPA — One second, Ronald Jones had the football in his hands, and the next he had a knot in his stomach.
The Bucs running back caught a short pass from Tom Brady on the second play of Sunday’s game at Carolina and was hit almost immediately by linebacker Shaq Thompson. Panthers safety Tre Boston recovered at the Tampa Bay 33-yard line.
The 5-foot-11, 220-pound running back can get down on himself when he does something to hurt his team. Coach Bruce Arians also has been known to leave Jones on the bench following one of his miscues, the way he did last season when he missed a blitz pickup against Jacksonville.
But this time, Arians greeted Jones when he came to the sideline to tell him, “Hey, dude, you’re our guy.”
“I was really, really proud of him, because when he had the miscue in New York, it really put him in the tank because he thought he let the team down,” Arians said of Jones’ fumble against the Giants two weeks earlier. “We talked a lot about that. One play doesn’t change games. When he came to the sideline, it was all encouragement and I really liked the way he bounced back and had a hell of a ballgame.”
In fact, it’s been Arians’ determination to stick with Jones that has helped him set a pace to become the Bucs’ first 1,000-yard rusher since Doug Martin in 2015.
On Sunday, Jones had the best game of his career, rushing for 192 yards and a touchdown. It included a 98-yard touchdown run during which he was timed at 21.19 miles per hour. He joined Derrick Henry, Tony Dorsett and Ahman Green as the only players in NFL history with a TD run of that distance. He was named the FedEx Ground Player of the Week.
“He just said, ‘Let it go. The team is going to need you, so just get back out there,’ and that’s what I did,” Jones said of Arians. “Good play, bad play, you’ve just got to forget it. I’ve still got a lot to improve on. I’ve got to stop making those mistakes. But we got the win ‚and it feels good.”
Brady was so excited, he ran the length of the field with several teammates to greet Jones in the end zone.
““You don’t see too many 98-yard runs,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had any 98-yard runs that I’ve been a part of. It was great to see the back of the (No.) 27 jersey just rolling down the field.”
With every stride, Jones cemented his role as the Bucs’ No. 1 running back. That didn’t seem possible after his disastrous rookie year, when the second-round pick from Southern Cal rushed for only 44 yards and a paltry 1.9-yard average.
Last season, he was the backup to Peyton Barber to start the season but finally began to show flashes of his explosiveness, rushing for 724 yards and six touchdowns.
What some fail to remember is that Jones was among the youngest players in the league. When he was drafted by the Bucs, he was only 20 years old.
“He’s so young,” Arians said. “When he got here, he was so, so young and didn’t really have that much background, but he had tremendous talent. His ability to cut, make people miss and break tackles was outstanding. It was just a matter of maturing as a back, slowing down and letting the game come to you instead of forcing everything.”
Running backs coach Todd McNair says Jones, who is called “Ro” or “Rojo” by coaches and teammates, isn’t aware of how good he can be.
“The credit goes to him. He’s really matured since last year when we first came in,” McNair said. “So a year in the system and I think the offensive coaches sticking with him and giving him a lot of positive reinforcement, I think he just blossomed, and the ceiling is still high.”
Mostly, Jones has to improve his pass-catching and route-running. He still struggles with hand placement and getting separation.
“He’s such a conscientious kid,” McNair said. “He can get into his own head sometimes and starts to struggle at times. But as far as making plays and making people miss, you’ve got to be in position to do that, especially Ro. With man-to-man routes, you’ve got to take your time and really win. Beat the guy.”
What Jones has done is beat all comers for his starting tailback job. While Arians has remained loyal, the Bucs still added LeSean McCoy and Leonard Fournette as free agents.
Both are Pro Bowl players with resumes that Jones likely dreams of. But competition brings out the best in most players, and Jones keeps improving.
“Alpha dog running backs don’t want to ever come out of the game,” McNair said. “Let’s keep it real. But they’ve co-existed. Leonard has carved out a different niche, and he has a different skill set than Ro. He’s more effective in the passing game and stuff comes natural to him in that regard. But they’re co-existing fine..”
It might be hard for the other backs to accept, but Jones is what makes the Bucs’ ground game go.
“I don’t even think ‘Ro’ understands how good he could be,” McNair said. “He does stuff by accident and it’s like, ‘Whoa.’ He probably can’t tell you what he did when he gets back to the sideline, but he’s got a tremendous amount of ability in his body. He’s so unassuming of a person, so I think all that stuff is just starting to click with the age and the maturity. He’s starting to see what he can truly become.”