RICHMOND — Hang around an NFL training camp long enough, and you’ll start to feel like you’re visiting an elementary school band concert. To those most invested, everything looks magical and sounds beautiful. Outsiders might cock an eye, if they’re not covering their ears.
Well, Matt Jones is now carrying his oboe onto the stage. Washington’s presumed starting running back is also presumed to be rather off-key by the outside world. A quick review of three recent rankings found Jones and his backfield mates slotted 29th, 32nd and 32nd in the NFL. (There are, sadly, just 32 teams.) Now listen to GM Scot McCloughan, when asked by a television reporter to identify a breakout star on his roster:
“Matt Jones is gonna have a heckuva year,” McCloughan promised. “Matt, I think, is going to step up and have a really good year. A really good year. I mean, shock people.”
“Scot knows what he’s talking about,” said backup Chris Thompson, who recently came across one of those dismal rankings and shared the results with Jones. “Everybody will see real soon — soon enough.”
Why such disagreement? In part, this stems from Jones’s startling ups-and-downs during his rookie campaign. When he ran for 123 yards against the Rams — averaging more than six yards a carry — he sure looked like a viable starting option. And when produced 187 all-purpose yards against the Saints — including a 78-yard catch — he seemed like a potential every-down back, or at least a solid fantasy football contributor. At 6 feet 2 and 232 pounds, Jones almost forces you to stare at him: “The first one you want off the bus when you’re getting ready to play somebody,” running backs coach Randy Jordan joked. “I wish I looked like that.”
In other words, Jones seems like he could be a starting running back.
“If you just cut up some of his best clips, you’re like wow, this guy!” offensive coordinator Sean McVay said. “Some of the runs he made last year, some of the things he did in the screen game: he’s shown flashes of why Scot, Jay [Gruden] and everybody believes he can be the guy for us.”
There’s still a qualifier there. Because when Jones gained just 158 yards in his final five games — averaging 2.7 yards a carry — he looked like, well, the league’s 32nd-best running back. And then you remember last year’s five fumbles, and Jones’s upright running style — which seemed to invite injury — and the times he muddled his way into a pile of bodies, and again you wonder: Is this the lead running back for a playoff team?
“I showed some ability last year, and I had some troubles last year,” Jones said, “so I guess they’re going off just the troubles.”
This offense has above-average wideouts, too many tight ends to keep, a $20 million quarterback and a serviceable offensive line. Its backfield is less secure. Could the team still be waiting for another veteran option to appear on the waiver wire? Could one of Washington’s younger reserves supplant Jones? Do coaches really think the second-year back is the answer?
“If you asked most people here, they’d say he’s definitely a breakout” candidate, McVay said. “If you look at his best stuff from last year, he’s got all the things that you look for in a number one back. It’s just does he have the maturity and the focus to maintain that throughout the course of a game? Do I have that same level of focus and concentration on play 1 as I do on play 55 or 60?”
“It’s just about reps for him,” Jordan added, “seeing it over and over and over and over again.”
McVay has fed his backs even when the yards aren’t coming, and if Jones can transcend his nonexistent expectations to become even an average NFL starter, Washington’s offense could be transformed. Last year, remember, the Redskins finished in the top 10 in points, even while finishing 30th in yards per carry.
The questions won’t be resolved in a quarter or two during the exhibition season. Skepticism will follow Jones into the regular season — especially if he stumbles, or fumbles, in these fake games. But if you want at least to imagine a harmonious outcome, August is the perfect time. At practice this week, the team ran a wide zone for Jones. Last year he might have tried to press the edge and stumbled into a two-yard gain. Instead, he waited until a back-side cut emerged.
“I just looked around and said hey, that’s what we’re looking for,” Jordan said. “Last year, he just was a battering ram; he just got the ball and he just ran. And now he’s understanding there is an art, there is a science, these are the angles.”
“We watched film,” Thompson said. “We looked at all of his fumbles and why he fumbled, and we realized it was something very simple, and he’s fixed it.”
The upright running style?
“I love my pad level right now,” Jones said. “ I can’t get as low as Chris Thompson, so I just need to get as low as my body can take me.”
“He’s starting to open his vision up and realize there’s more ways around a guy than just going through ’em,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “He knows the game more than he knew it last year. … He’s definitely learned, and he’s definitely become one of those bell-cow backs.”
The Redskins might believe this, or at least hope for it. The rest of the football world still needs convincing.