Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tunnel Vision

DE Marcus Jones has found the light at the end of the tunnel precisely because he wasn’t looking for it

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DE Marcus Jones is no longer in a hurry to get off the practice field.

This is the official web site of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but we're going to have to label this story an 'unauthorized account' of Marcus Jones' meteoric rise to NFL stardom. You see, Jones wouldn't even agree with our own subtitle.

There is no light at the end of the tunnel, says Jones, the Bucs' 10-sack defensive end.

Same goes for his position coach, Rod Marinelli, who embedded this idea in Jones' dread locked head. The tunnel, you see, represents a player's effort, in a game or on the practice field. If the player is searching for the light at the end of the tunnel, he believes that one more play, one more sack, could get him there.

Jones isn't looking for that light, and therefore his effort never peaks or valleys. There's no final destination, no punching-out hour. If he gets his third sack of the game with two minutes remaining, his job is not done. Their might be one crucial snap left in the game, and he wants to win it. Never let up. "I've been thinking that there's no light at the end of the tunnel for such a long time that I just line up and break rocks," said Jones.

It is a master motivational ploy by Marinelli, considered one of the league's finest assistant coaches. His players tend to follow Marinelli's leadership to the extreme.

"Rod, he's the type of guy that says, regardless if it's raining or snowing, if it's cold or it's hot, that shouldn't affect you," said Jones. "What matters is getting a rush and stopping the run. You do those things day in and day out, every minute of every hour of the day, without thinking, 'If I get this rush right now, I'm going to win.' It has to be something that's ingrained in you and installed in you, to where you're going to get a rush and stop the run, regardless of what else is going on. Basically, 'the light at the end of the tunnel' means, don't look for any kudos or anything for your work. Just keep working and things will eventually happen."

What seems like less an eventuality than a foregone conclusion is that Jones will break Lee Roy Selmon's 23-year-old team record for sacks in a season, as will DT Warren Sapp, who has 9.5 sacks. With 10 QB takedowns through seven games, including four last Thursday and at least one in every game this year save one, Jones is already just three back of Selmon's 1977 mark of 13.

That Sapp is challenging the record is not surprising. Sapp just missed with 12. 5 last season and has averaged just under 10 sacks a season over the last four years. That Jones is actually ahead of Sapp in that chase is remarkable.

Less than two years ago, as the 1998 season came to a conclusion, Jones' career was at its nadir. A first-round draft pick in 1996, Jones had netted exactly one sack and 32 tackles in his first three seasons, mostly with him playing nose tackle inside next to Sapp. Before the Bucs' 1999 offseason even got underway, Jones was exposed in the Cleveland Browns expansion draft, but not plucked off Tampa Bay's roster. He was then converted to a defensive end and given another shot as a Buccaneer.

One could call that, we suppose, the moment that Jones' career began to take off, but the 6-6, 280-pounder sees his drastic turnaround as more of a process than an epiphany.

"it was something where I've had to learn to be accountable for my actions, to be accountable on the field," said Jones, who eclipsed his previous stats with 36 tackles and seven sacks in 1999. "It wasn't something where I went to the coach and said, 'Listen, I need to play because I'm good.' It was one of those things where I realized that I had a lot of work to do. It wasn't college anymore, and things don't just happen easily for you like they did in college. It was something that I had to gradually work into and gradually understand. It took me awhile."

Even that breakthrough performance in 1999 couldn't have made the events of this year predictable, but his continued rise is obviously the effects of another offseason of hard work, of believing in the system. Jones was so impressive throughout the 2000 offseason and into the preseason, that he was awarded the right defensive end starting role over former starter Steve White.

"My whole attitude about the game itself is a little different," said Jones, who was often the first player out of the door on practice afternoons in his early seasons. "Then, I was just worried about surviving practice and now, I'm worried about getting better while I'm at practice.

"I couldn't wait (to leave Bucs headquarters). I really couldn't wait. I wasn't happy with my game. When you're not happy with your game, there are a lot of things that go along with that. It was just a cycle that you have to break yourself out of. We call it getting in the tank, and once you get in the tank, one of two things happen. Either you stay in the tank and you're not here anymore, or you get out of the tank. I decided to get out of the tank."

Jones has made a complete 180 from his days of early exits, and he's now one of the most conscientious players on the team. "He's always working," said Marinelli. "He's in the film room at lunch. It's not just now. It's the last year-and-a-half. He's turned the corner, he likes what he's doing. That's the biggest part of it. Then you have a little success tied into that, and then it just keeps expanding and expanding. Then you understand, that the work is related to your success.

"That's what the game of football is about."

Jones remembers his days of low-impact play, and he's motivated by it. Playing next to Sapp on the interior line, he almost never drew a double-team away from his more well-known teammate. Jones was aware that he was not considered a real threat by his opponents.

"Guys knew, and when you don't have that respect around the league, that hurts a little bit more than anything else," he said.

Things are radically different now, or at least they will be soon. Jones quite seriously attributed his four-sack game against the Lions to the pressure Sapp was applying in the middle. The 1999 NFL Defensive Player of the Year continues to be the top concern for Buccaneer opponents, but strategies may have to change if Jones keeps piling up sacks.

"Hopefully, they'll start to pull a guy off Sapp," said Jones, even if that might cut into his production. "Our defense, we complement each other. When Sapp gets a really good rush, he forces the guy out. When I get a good rush, it makes the quarterback step up so they can get a sack. We all feed off each other."

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