I asked Adam Jones last week if he remembers his last fair catch.
“No,” he replied.
“It was in November of 2006,” I said. “You had back-to-back fair catches and then you took one back 90 yards for a touchdown.”
“Must have been the Philly game then,” he said with a grin. “That was a pretty good one.”
Indeed it was. Until Sunday’s game against Carolina, it was the longest return of Jones’ career. But after the Panthers scored a touchdown to take a 31-24 lead with 4:50 to go; Adam looked for an opportunity to top it.
“Did you ask (special teams coach) Darrin Simmons to return the kickoff?” a reporter asked Jones after the game.
“Yes I did,” he said.
The 31-year-old cornerback hadn’t returned a kickoff in two years and hasn’t been his team’s primary kickoff return man since playing for Tennessee eight years ago.
“I’ve done it more in practice,” said Jones. “(Darrin) told me to just be smart with the ball. It all worked out for the best.”
Carolina kicker Graham Gano might have the strongest leg in the NFL. Last year a league-high 79.7% of his kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. But with Jones waiting near the back of the end zone, Gano only kicked the ball to the goal line and Adam made him pay for it with a career-long 97 yard return to the Panthers’ 3-yard-line.
“Man, we didn’t win the game so I don’t care,” said Jones.
Mike Nugent’s 36-yard game-ending missed field goal in the 37-37 tie turned Jones’ electrifying return into a footnote, but it doesn’t diminish his remarkable numbers as a return man this season. Adam has only touched the ball six times and has returns of 24, 45, 47, and 97 yards.
“It’s something that you can’t explain,” Jones told me. “I know that Darrin does a good job of getting us prepared to go on Sundays with the guys up front and the blocking schemes so a lot of that goes to him.”
Last week after interviewing Simmons in his office, we watched Adam’s first punt return in each of the last four seasons:
2011: 63-yard return at Seattle.
2012: 81-yard TD return vs. Cleveland.
2013: 50-yard return at Chicago (negated by penalty).
2014: 45-yard return at Baltimore.
How does Jones do it?
“I think he’s got a great amount of confidence in himself, first and foremost, and I think he has a great amount of confidence in our blockers,” said Simmons. “But he has very natural feel. And I think he still has elite quickness and body control and that’s what gets him loose.”
On two of his big returns this year, Jones has used hesitation moves to elude the gunners before bursting into the open field.
“It’s just the little things that I can see before it happens – just to give (the blockers) a second to open up the holes,” said Jones. “Nine times out of 10 I like to just hit it, but sometimes you have to hesitate.”
Jones has returned 82 consecutive punts since his last fair catch (for trivia buffs, Philadelphia’s Dirk Johnson was the punter) but the only streak that mattered to him on Sunday was the Bengals’ home winning streak. He was bitterly disappointed that his long kickoff return that helped to force overtime did not lead to Cincinnati’s 12th straight regular season home victory.
“When the coaches put you in the position to win the game after everything we went through, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t win the game right there. Period,” said Jones.
“I know Mike is going to be hard on himself, but we’re a team so I guess we have to get it back together and try not to get in those situations where we get all the way to the end of the game like that. The only thing we can do is come watch the film and try to get better on Monday.”
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