"I haven't changed, but the way people perceive me has changed completely. I feel that I'm now the Colts' scapegoat." --Bert Jones, Baltimore Colts
A scapegoat is an animal or person to whom sins or bad luck are ceremonially attached and who symbolically bears them away by being sacrificed or exiled.
That's a definition Bert Jones thinks fits him perfectly. The once great quarterback, now in ill repute, feels like the NFL equivalent of a Biblical fatted kid. Jones fears he's about to be sent into the wilderness to atone for the sins of others in a season that saw the Colts win their first and last games and lose 14 in between.
Baltimore owner Robert Irsay, the man at whose doorstep Jones believes most of the Colts' sins and ill fortune should be laid, has said of Jones, "I want his ass out of Baltimore."
If Jones had his way, it would be t'other way 'round.
"What's wrong with the Colts is the whole attitude of the whole organization, starting at the top," says Jones. "How long will it take to change? Well, I may only have five or six more years to play. It may take longer than that.
"Our situation is unique. Neither our owner nor our general manager (Dick Szymanski) wants to take any responsibility or blame for anything. Their rule seems to be, 'Silence is golden. Stay off my back.' That attitude is definitely reflected throughout the whole organization.
"I really feel that the Colts promoted a negative viewpoint toward me all season. It was like, 'Don't let this guy get bigger than you are . . . Let's blame the coach and quarterback. Here, take the ball, it's all yours.'
"The thing that hurt me most, though, was when Curtis Dickey was quoted as saying that I was a racist and the Colts didn't say anything to defend my reputation. The only people who came to my defense were my black teammates and former teammates. The day after that story broke, Joe Washington (of the Redskins) called me, laughing: 'How're you doing, you ol' racist?'
"Nothing's ever bothered me much more than that because it was so unfair and untrue."
For two weeks, Jones has been home in Louisiana, spending time in duck blinds, away from humanity. He's had plenty to think about. Few players have ridden a wilder whirlwind. Or face a more perplexing future.
Just four years ago, Jones was among the most glamorous players in the NFL. The unpretentious, born-to-the-football-purple son of Cleveland receiver Dub Jones had taken the Colts from last place to three consecutive division titles.
Worshipped in Baltimore and coveted in every NFL city, Jones, then 26, was the prototype quarterback: big, smart, a workaholic, fabulous arm, quick feet, a proven winner, clutch, courageous, a flamboyant leader, handsome, honest, articulate yet folksy.
Now, at 30, all that has changed with a vengeance. This season, Jones was accused of being a prima donna, a racist, a malingerer who wouldn't play hurt and a team troublemaker who has filed a labor grievance against his club. It's thought by many observers in Baltimore that the team's 14 straight losses this season, and utter collapse to NFL joke status, are largely the fault of Jones' chronic shoulder injuries, Jones' slow recuperations, Jones' lost confidence, Jones' criticism of teammates or Jones' bad attitude.
Jones, child of fortune, was shaken. "I visited him after the Jets game," says close friend and former Colt quarterback Marty Domres. "He was visibly different, confidence eroded, kind of lost by it all. He'd never believed a team could quit around him. He was even showing it on the field--looking resigned to defeat and disgusted.
"I walked into his house after that game and he just looked up at me and said, 'Can you believe this? Can you believe the boat I'm in?' "
It's said that, every 24 hours, the world turns over on somebody who was on top of it. For Jones, the phenomenon is even harder to swallow because every aspect of his competitive personality is now looked at as being the reverse of the way it was once construed.
"Four years ago, if I'd gotten mad at a player during a game--and I did lots of times--people would say, 'What a feisty competitor that Jones is,' " says Jones. "This year, I probably didn't use enough discretion that time I got mad at Curtis (Dickey), but everybody said, 'Jones is a prima donna, a team wrecker.' "
"Bert's always been country-honest and has a little bit of that Huck Finn, bumpkin edge," says Domres, a Columbia University grad. "Then, Baltimore loved it. Now, they find it obnoxious, not sincere. Then, nobody ever threw the ball like Bert Jones. Now, they say he throws it too hard to catch."
Like it or not, Jones now is seen as a major part of the Colts' problem, not as part of its solution. Coach Mike McCormack was fired the day after the season. If Jones doesn't follow him into exile in a trade, it will be a shock.
Ernie Accorsi, Baltimore's assistant general manager, says, "By the end of this month, I'd assume that we would have heard trade offers for Bert from any team that's interested. His case is almost identical to that of John Dutton, whom we ended up trading to Dallas (for No. 1 and No. 2 draft picks)."
Ruminating in Ruston, Jones has become convinced that his gut feelings this season--of disgust and betrayal by the Colts--are, in fact, the correct reactions. After long silence, he's decided to speak and defend himself.
(Neither Irsay nor Szymanski, whose offices have been contacted several times over the past week by The Washington Post, have returned phone calls.)
"The problem starts with the owner," says Jones. "Players can try to divorce themselves from the owner and say, 'We'll just play for ourselves,' but you can't ignore the fact that your best players leave for no good reason. John Dutton, Lydell Mitchell, Joe Washington, Ray Oldham, Stan White, Joe Ehrmann, Lyle Blackwood. They all left, basically, because of money. And they're all still starting in the league.
"Fred Cook is another example --would have continued to be a superb player, if he'd been treated right. These same kind of salary demands don't stop any other team in the NFL from keeping its good players. Money was never a problem here when Joe Thomas was general manager," Jones continues.
"Heck, every NFL franchise gets $6 million in TV money before the season even starts. The Colts can't say it's because they don't have the money. In fact, that's more true now than ever. Irsay has told me face to face that cable TV has offered the NFL $12 million a team next year just to try to get the rights away from network TV."
This season Jones felt he did not get the personal support from the franchise and ownership.
"I was taking the heat for nothing. I think I played pretty damn good football all year, considering . . . " says Jones, whose statistics in 1981 were 244 completions of 426 attempts (57.3 percent) for 3,094 yards and 21 touchdowns and 20 interceptions.
"Look at the Jets game. I was getting beat on all day, sacked seven times. I got flushed out of the pocket nine times, had to throw on the run 10 times. I went 24 for 33 with six passes dropped and when I came out, I was the one who took the blame. It was absurd."
To his credit, Jones never said such things while the pitiful season was in progress.
"McCormack was the man who could have kept me from getting more than my fair share of the criticism. Privately, he'd tell me, 'You're the best quarterback I've ever seen.' But he never said it to anybody else."
Far worse to Jones, however, was the Colts' front office silence during the celebrated Jones-Dickey affair.
Jones screamed at Dickey in the Nov. 8 game against the New York Jets and ordered him off the field after a play in which Jones thought Dickey did not try. That on-camera explosion was the culmination of Jones' rage at many of his fellow players all year.
"This season made me wonder why I sat up nights watching game films. I'd ask myself, 'Are you the only one who cares? Are you the sick one?' A lot of older players felt that way. Two-thirds of the team has less than three years experience. Some of them tried hard, but plenty of them didn't, plenty of them just didn't care."
Dickey, asked on camera if he thought his problems with Jones were racial, gave a one-word answer: "Yes."
"I don't blame Curtis. He just got caught in the middle," says Jones. "I blame the Colts for never putting the whole thing to bed. A simple public statement saying that the whole thing was pure bull could have stopped it.
"It's impossible to defend yourself against being called a racist," says Jones, "especially if you're from the South. It's a terrible rap to live with, and for my family. My daddy helped organize and put in the Grambling College offense, which is just down the road from us here (in Ruston). Since I was in high school until right now, I've worked out more at Grambling with the guys over there than probably any other place.
"I won't forget that the Colts didn't say one word to help me." JONESADD1
What does Jones' future hold?
His trade value is not what it once was. For example, the Redskins, despite difficulties in signing Joe Theismann, say they have little or no interest in Jones. "We don't even know what they're asking," says Bobby Beathard, Washington general manager. "Of course, we're like everybody else. We'd love to have Baltimore's No. 1 pick in the draft . . . Maybe they'd give it to us if we'd take Bert."
Jones, who missed all but two games of the 1978 and '79 seasons, but who missed only two games of the '80 and '81 seasons, says, "My shoulder is fine now. I think the best five years of my career are ahead of me."
Jones' case is complicated by several factors. The Colts say that he is now a free agent and that any team who wants him will have to compensate them (under NFL rules) with two No. 1 draft choices--a demand that probably will never be met.
Jones and his lawyer/brother Bill argue that they and Irsay reached a verbal agreement on a contract extension this season, but that Irsay has conveniently lost his recollection of such a pact. Irsay said previously that since Jones did not sign the extension within a reasonable time frame, the contract offer is void. So, Jones has filed a grievance with the players' union against the club.
All these machinations Jones describes as trash. He knows the truth. If the Colts get a decent deal for him, it will be worked out. If they get only chicken-feed offers, they'll suddenly recall their previous talks and re-sign him.
"I'm in limbo," says Jones. "Being in the NFL is worse than being in the Army. They both draft you, but in the NFL, you have less freedom.
"Every time I go duck hunting with (American League baseball player rep) Doug DeCinces (of the Baltimore Orioles), he tells me about the freedoms they've won and it makes me sick. The NFL has its players under its thumb. They could draft a whole new team out of college every season and they know it. The whole league is designed to emphasize the team, but never the identity of the player. Johnny Unitas couldn't play today because he wore black high tops. Lenny Moore couldn't play because he wore white spats. Jim Parker couldn't play because his shirt tail was always out. All that's against the rules now."
Still, Jones has two dreams.
The first, the unrealistic one, but the one that he says suits his temperament, is to stay in Baltimore and "roll with the punches until things get better. It would be easy to get better and we couldn't possibly get worse."
The second is to be traded to a sensible, solid organization with a team that needs only a good, well-protected quarterback to become a Super Bowl contender.
For now, however, Jones almost seems a creature of the past. Domres talks nostalgically about the game that got the Colts into the playoffs in 1975--the first time under Jones. "It was late in the fourth quarter, cold and the fog rolling in. We're down seven points and it's fourth and 12," says Domres, then Jones' backup. "(Coach) Ted (Marchibroda) and I came up with the perfect play--isolating Ray Chester on a safety--but there wasn't time to send in the play. The clock is ticking and Bert stands up in the huddle and gives us this little cocky smile. He'd read our minds. Chester goes over the middle. Bert hits him. The drive's alive. We score. And Bert beats the Dolphins in overtime.
"That's how I'll always remember him. All the rest of this stuff? It should never have happened to Bert Jones."