The Bengals lost to the Chiefs that day, 27-20, and Jones took the hardest hit he’s ever endured to his self-confidence. He was hurting from a problematic knee that had required offseason surgery and wasn’t fully healed.
Fast-forward to present day and the Bengals left tackle and first-round draft choice from 2002 is a different man.
“This is as good as I’ve felt in a long time,” said Jones as he walked off the practice field this week at minicamp. “As far as health-wise I feel real good and ready to go.”
That’s positive news for the Bengals because a healthy, happy and productive Jones can only mean good things for quarterback Carson Palmer and the offense. Jones is a player capable of shutting down the best pass rushers in the game (he once held Dwight Freeney of Indianapolis without so much of an assisted tackle in a game) and doing so without having to use an extra tight end or running back for help.
For Jones the key is staying healthy. Ever since undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in December 2003 and returning six days later to start the next week’s game, Jones seems to have been playing catch-up with his health. If it hasn’t been one knee then it’s been the other, or another ailment creeps up as an after effect of Jones having to compensate for a different injury.
His health – and play – improved in the second half of last season and Jones spent the offseason working out in his home state of Arizona, eschewing the team’s conditioning program. Whatever he did, it seems to have worked for the player the Bengals chose to lock up to a six-year, $40 million contract in 2006.
“I had a chance to go visit out in Arizona this off-season where Levi trains, and I had a chance to talk to the people who work with him on a daily basis, and they said he was setting the standard for entire group out there,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “Those were good things for me to hear. It's exciting for him, the fact that he seems to be able to deal with the issues he's had. Hopefully they will stay in the past. He knows how to deal with them when they crop up and you get the wear and tear of a football season on those joints.
“He obviously has been a big investment for us and one we want to see healthy and playing productive football for a long time.”
Jones made waves around draft time in April when word leaked out that he had gone to management seeking a trade. It wasn’t that he wanted a new contract but rather that he didn’t think the team had the kind of support and backing of him as a player that he believed he warranted. Just as it did when wide receiver Chad Johnson asked for a trade, the Bengals declined the request.
Both Jones and the Bengals say that situation is in the past. He has been working with the No. 1 offensive unit during minicamp.
“It’s on to the next play,” said Jones, who is more excited about this season’s prospects not just because of his own health but that of the entire team; including right tackle Willie Anderson.
“You want all of your players out here to be at the best of their abilities, to be as healthy as possible and be able to perform in the manner that you expect them to perform at,” said Jones. “It’s not just me and Willie. Any player you can have out here 100 percent full healthy to contribute in whatever form they want us to, that’s the goal you have. That’s what everybody works in the offseason for, to get as healthy as they can both physically and mentally. It’s more important than just for me and Willie; it’s for the whole team.”