The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion ‘I don’t know how I got through it’: How to survive an NFL benching

Matt Jones fumbles against the Lions. (Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Rob Kelley story drips with good feelings. How can you not love an undrafted rookie running back with a nondescript résumé who suddenly becomes an NFL starter for a playoff contender? Who doesn’t appreciate his hard-charging running style and soft-spoken humility? I mean, his nickname is Fat Rob! You can’t root against someone nicknamed Fat Rob.

Just look at Kelley on Thursday, happily greeting a national reporter at his Redskins Park locker, and it’s hard not to feel happy for the kid. Then take two steps to Kelley’s left, and chat with the guy he replaced. That’s Matt Jones. And when you ask Jones how his past few weeks have been, you’ll get to experience a joyful sports promotion, in reverse.

“Horrible,” Jones said, with a wry smile. “Just very disappointed. . . . Sometimes I don’t even know how to feel.”

Maybe this sounds a bit dramatic. Consider, though: Jones believes that football is “what God put me here for, just to play ball, just like these other guys.” He said he’s never been benched at any point in his football career: not in Pop Warner, high school or college. After the Redskins moved on from Alfred Morris last spring and declined to bring in a veteran replacement, the starting job was presented to Jones, a second-year back who had shown flashes of potential. The general manager who drafted him in the third round said Jones would be this team’s breakout star, would “shock people” in 2016.

Redskins face complicated decision at wide receiver

But his biggest issue as a rookie was fumbling, and he lost a backbreaking red zone fumble during a loss in Detroit seven weeks ago. The team kept Jones out the following week because of a knee injury, and Kelley seized the starting job. Jones doesn’t play special teams — a requirement for a backup — so he hasn’t been in uniform for a game since.

“All these guys that lose a starting role, they just have to come out and practice until they earn it back,” Coach Jay Gruden said.

Except this isn’t like a linebacker who loses his starting role and sees his snap count cut in half. In seven weeks, Jones went from unquestioned opening-night starter to street clothes. Even if you know it’s a business built on constant competition and fleeting opportunities, that doesn’t make a high-profile demotion any easier to swallow.

“You walk in the store, people ask you why you’re not playing,” Jones said. “Family [members] ask why you’re not playing. I went through everything at a certain time: embarrassment, shame. A lot of stuff.”

Jones wasn’t asking for sympathy, but it came anyhow. Veteran Vernon Davis, who has become something of a life counselor in the team’s locker room, talked Jones through the situation. Center Spencer Long made a point to ask Jones every day how he was doing. Guys from the defense checked in. And there were sympathetic ears in the running backs meeting room, where even Kelley had feelings for the man he had replaced.

I mean, I don’t think I’d be able to handle it like he’s handled it,” Kelley said. “I’d probably pitch a fit for a little while. I don’t know how he does it.”

Jones hasn’t said a cross word about the decision to members of the media. Still, he lost his smile, stopped making jokes around the facility, did the sort of things you or I might do had we been publicly demoted. Chris Thompson, the room’s 26-year-old veteran, eventually took Jones aside.

“I just had to tell him, I don’t understand how he feels, but he’s just got to find a way to at least try to pretend to have a smile on his face,” Thompson said. “He was more kind of being to himself a lot. And I know how hard that is, being to yourself, because your mind just keeps going and going and going. And I was just trying to tell him: We’re here for you. We’re here with you. I mean, you were a third-round pick; we know you can do it, so don’t start doubting yourself.”

Redskins lineman A.J. Francis chose No. 69 ‘for exactly the reason you would think’

Doubt doesn’t seem to be the problem. After averaging an unimpressive 3.4 yards per carry as a rookie, Jones was up to 4.6 before his benching. (Kelley is averaging 4.7 yards a carry, and hasn’t fumbled the ball once.) At the time of his benching, Jones had more rushing yards than Todd Gurley — the first running back taken in his draft — and had caught all eight of his targets in the passing game.

“I think I put some great things on film, but obviously the fumble didn’t help,” he said.

The week before the Detroit fumble, he had perhaps his best game of the season, running for 135 yards on 16 carries against the Eagles. That made him the first Washington running back to gain at least 120 yards while averaging better than eight yards a carry since Stephen Davis in 1999. When the Redskins play the Eagles again Sunday, Jones almost certainly will be a bystander.

As it turns out, he still has supporters in the organization. It’s not insane to think he might yet get another opportunity, even if it doesn’t happen this season. Cynics will reject sympathy, arguing that mistakes have consequences, and athletes get benched all the time. In that corner of the locker room, though, you won’t find many cynics.

It’s tough, bro, going from being a starter to all the way back where he is right now,” Kelley said.

“It’s rough, man,” Thompson said. “It’s tough when he feels like he knows what the issue is: It’s the fumbles. But just to hear and believe that people trust in you, and then this happens, it’s just hard for anybody to deal with. He stressed about it a lot. But at this point, he’s overcome all that. He’s just keeping a positive mind-set and just controlling what he can control.”

Indeed, Jones said the benching has made him “a better a person, a better man.” He said he doesn’t regret any plays, not even the fumbles, because “I don’t feel like you should play the game with any regrets. Stuff happens. I wouldn’t take anything back.” He said he learned how not to take his work problems home; that “I still  have a family that loves me; I’ve got to go home and have that same attitude.” These few weeks have taught him “just don’t take anything for granted,” he said, and he thinks the worst is already behind him. And he’s a reminder: Even feel-good stories sometimes have scratchy undersides.

“Like I said, I don’t know how I got through it,” Jones said. “But I’m here now. I’m happy that stage is over, I’m ready to build from it and I’m just really ready to be back on the field.”