By Bob Socci, 98.5 The Sports Hub
MIAMI (CBS) – Rather than start the New Year with a resolution, I have a confession to make.
And if you’ve ever chuckled over the barbs I frequently absorb from much bigger broadcast partner Scott Zolak or only slightly taller Friday-afternoon foil Tony Massarotti, it’s really an unsurprising statement of the obvious. I’m a huge fan of the little guys who compete in the big man’s game of the NFL.
Brady to Bennett or Gronk? Exciting, yes. But Edelman or Amendola dashing, darting, bobbing, weaving and eventually tumbling head over heels? Now that’s when I — with apologies to the late, great, larger-than-life St. Louis radio icon Jack Buck — go crazy, folks.
Nothing against the jumbo package of an extra tackle, a double-stack of tight ends and a fullback in a neck roll blocking for a behemoth like LeGarrette Blount. All and good. But line up the ‘Pony Formation’ of 5-foot-somethings James White and Dion Lewis and my chest sticks out a little farther as the lilt to my voice rises a lot higher.
Even better are the back stories belonging to these overreachers who manage to exceed grasps that came up shorter than others at the NFL Combine. Many have gone undrafted and/or gotten released. All remained undeterred and refused to go away. Once little-big men on college campuses, they bring grit to the grind of pro training camps.
One such Patriot in the class of 2016 rookies is 5-foot-10 Jonathan Jones.
Although he never left upon arriving in Foxborough, making the 53-man roster out of the preseason, Jones qualifies on all other counts. With his outsized heart, he’s someone previously thought by others to be too small for the NFL now living large (well, relatively) in The League.
Jones was a four-year starter in the Southeastern Conference, assigned to some of the most gifted receivers in the country as a defensive back at Auburn University. During the week of practice leading up to the 2016 Senior Bowl, he was lauded for his work mirroring tough covers like future Giant Sterling Shephard and current teammate Malcolm Mitchell.
None other than ‘The Godfather’ of pro football evaluators, Gil Brandt, called Jones one of the most underrated defenders entering the 2016 Draft. At the NFL’s annual scouting combine, Jones dashed 40 yards in 4.33 seconds and pumped 225 pounds of iron 19 times in the bench press.
No one in his position group at Indianapolis proved faster or stronger. Unfortunately, and uncontrollably for Jones, too many stood taller. Evaluators pegged him in the slot, suggesting he lacked the size to succeed outside.
After three days of the draft, 32 cornerbacks had been selected. Jones wasn’t among them. He took two days to deal with the disappointment.
“I kind of gave myself a 48-hour period,” Jones says. “You get over it and you bounce back and you say, ‘Hey, this is where I’m at in life. Let’s attack it head on.’”
His best opportunity to do so was offered by the Patriots. A year earlier, another non-draftee out of Auburn, Brandon King, was given the same chance. King seized it, and has since become a core special teamer in New England.
“I got a chance to speak with Brandon and he spoke highly of this place before I got here,” Jones said last Wednesday before his locker at One Patriot Place. “When you get here, you realize it’s a fair place. You come in, put in your work and when you get your opportunity you have to make the most of it.
“From the top down, they give you a good opportunity to prove yourself. You have a chance to come out here and everybody’s on an equal playing field. And it comes down to what you can do and how you can help the team. At the end of the day, coaches are going to sit down and evaluate guys…and the more you can help the team, the better your chance of sticking around.”
Jonathan kept company at corner in the spring and summer with incumbent starters Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, as well as the team’s top draft choice Cyrus Jones. The field was also crowded by returnee Darryl Roberts and fellow rookie Cre’von LeBlanc, who wound up with the Jets and Bears, respectively.
“I do believe that competition brings out the best in you, and we definitely got that in training camp,” Jones said. “At the end of the day we all found places to play and teams to be a part of. Being here has definitely been good for me. I’ve enjoyed it.”
Jones got to stay by using his speed to separate himself on special teams. He exited June mini-camp and entered August seemingly out front of others because of how he covered punts and kickoffs. We’ve since learned that Jones immediately impressed Bill Belichick as a coachable kid well ahead of his years.
“Jonathan did a good job for us in those roles in training camp, which really is probably what got him on the team, the way that he performed in the practices against Chicago and New Orleans,” said Belichick, harking back to joint practices in early August. “Then in the preseason games, really the Carolina game if I remember right, and then the Giants game as well. He kind of showed us that he could do those things.
“He’s got a lot of staying power. He comes in ready to work every day, really consistent, very professional. He carries himself like a guy that has a lot more experience than what he does.”
Belichick made those remarks a few Mondays ago, after Jones pinned a punt at Baltimore’s one-yard line and, as a defender, thwarted a Ravens’ toss sweep by throwing the runner for a loss. The following week, he pounced on a muffed punt to set up the first score at Denver. And the game after that, Jones was routinely down field to greet Jets returner and ex-Auburn teammate Nick Marshall.
Two days later, I asked special teams captain Matthew Slater, who was injured and absent from the New York contest, what he saw from the sideline in Jones.
“I think he’s been consistent for us all season,” said Slater, who was recently voted to his sixth career Pro Bowl. “He’s taken advantage of the match-ups that he gets and he’s got a tremendous skill set, as I’ve said all year. The way he can run, he’s just a natural at it.”
Jones’s contributions stem from more than just his natural gift of speed and the preternatural acuteness characterized by Belichick. He’s also humble enough to learn from elders like Slater while taking nothing for granted, so long as he keeps living this improbable dream.
“Older guys take you in and (tell you), ‘This is the way we do it here. This is the way it should be done,’” he said. “When you have that great leadership and foundation, it’s easy to come in and follow suit.
“It’s been everything I ever dreamed of, honestly. To be here, to be in an organization like this, first of all, a winning organization. (It’s) a place of great pride, great tradition.”
Part of that tradition is giving the relative little guy opportunities to do big things. Which for some — and lest we be reminded who we are, Zo and Max — is a source of pride.
Four of safety Duron Harmon’s seven career regular-season interceptions have been at the expense of Sunday’s opponent Miami. One of those picks two years ago resulted in a 60-yard return, while the most recent in September clinched the Patriots’ 31-24 victory.
Disbelieving the notion of a broadcaster’s jinx (if there’s a no-hitter in the works, it’s the announcer’s obligation to say so; just as it’s his job to report on a hot-shooter’s exploits at the free throw line), I sought an explanation for his past success in the series. Of course, just in case, I asked with fingers crossed.
“It just happens. For some reason, God liked me to play good when we played the Dolphins,” said Harmon, his smile leading to laughter by reporters. “I’m hoping it happens again this Sunday.
If curious about what breeds a winning culture in sports, you’ll likely find the following from Brandon King especially interesting. King, as noted above, was an undrafted free agent who made the Patriots last year as hybrid safety-linebacker type. His game reps occur almost exclusively on special teams.
King says that when it comes to the Patriots’ daily approach he is treated no different than any other member of New England’s 53-man partnership.
“I don’t see stars on this team. Everyone comes here and everyone works the same way, everyone gets the same respect. If you don’t do things right, you get the same treatment. No one has any favoritism,” King explained on Thursday. “There’s no in-between, there’s no complaining. It’s just, ‘You’re here. You’re going to work your butt off and when you leave (then) you can relax.
“And everyone understands that we have a big goal in mind. We’re trying to make it to the ultimate goal. But right not it’s just step by step. You can’t go further than the day that you’re in. Just day by day. We’ve been doing that and now we’re at the end of the season. We’ll just continue to work and try to keep things going the right way.”
Bob Socci is the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.