A Winding Road to the NFL
Coming off a string of dominant seasons in the Arena Football League, Tiger Jones—who played most of this year’s Arena regular season with the Philadelphia Soul—has been given a shot at a roster spot on the Eagles. At 5’10” and 30 years old, he’s looking to become perhaps the oldest rookie you’ll see this season. Jones has come upon a rare opportunity, reaching NFL training camp the hard way after jumping around ever since his graduation from Louisville in 2005, and he won’t take it for granted.
Jones was named the AFL’s Cutter’s Wide Receiver of the Year in 2011 while playing for the Dallas Vigilantes, and he was putting up similar, if not better, numbers with the Soul through 16 regular season games, compiling 2,010 receiving yards with 47 touchdowns. Even in the offense and pass-happy AFL, those numbers are ludicrous.
It’s been a long time coming for Jones, who says the other guys vying for open Eagles wide receiver slots are all about 22 to 24 years old. No one else has experienced the same winding journey to training camp, which was made even more complicated due to the nature of Arena Football contracts—in just about all cases they’re for only one year. Thus, Jones has played for five teams in all different parts of the country since 2007. It’s one thing if you’re moving that much while making NFL money, but in Arena, there’s no question that you’ve got to love what you do to sustain a career and keep the dream alive. Jones says he worked on improving his game every off-season, not just to get better, but because he knew there was a new team he’d have to make next season.
Adjusting His Game: AFL Versus NFL
After proving himself as a sort of big fish in a small pond over the past few years, there are plenty of adjustments he has to make to get serious consideration for the Eagles opening day roster. Signed in early July, Jones has had to adapt to the bigger field he hasn’t played on in years (Arena fields are only half as long and are thinner as well), and he’s had to digest an NFL playbook and learn a full new set of running routes in a very brief period of time.
“The Arena game is just totally different from the outdoor game,” Jones says. “Just the route running and the nuances about getting open [are different outdoors] because there are 11 men out there. You have to read blitzes and read different coverages. You know, it’s a little bit of an adjustment just to try to get on the same page as the coaches—what they want. But I think I’m doing pretty good and coming along.”
Jones also commented on how the Arena game is faster than the outdoor game—not commenting on players’ speed, but just on the nature of the game. The NFL has a bigger field and more players, so plays take longer to develop. Quarterbacks have a little more time to throw and receivers have a little more time to get open. Jones says it’s just a matter of realizing these things whenever he goes into a route.
There are other different aspects to the game, like the absence of the wall as a boundary, which makes him feel “a little bit more free,” but he says the core training and the fundamentals are still the same. Both games demand quickness, explosiveness, speed and strength, according to him.
Sacrificing a Possible Championship
Jones left the Soul near the end of a great season, one in which the team was 13-3 and playoff-bound with two games left when the Eagles signed him. But despite Jones’ amazing season, the Soul nearly completed their championship season in his absence, winning their final two regular season games and two playoff games before falling short against the Arizona Rattlers in the Arena Bowl, losing 72-54 on August 10th. Soul Head Coach Doug Plank praised Jones’ individual efforts and contributions to the team, crediting him for his influence on his teammates.
“A lot of times, players on teams can learn from other players,” he says. “There’s no question in my mind that our receiving corps has benefited from just having Tiger at practice and watching him in games just to see how efficient he is in terms of making catches, picking up yards after the catch, and just how he conducts himself as a professional athlete.”
Jones added that the Soul fully supports him in his run with the Eagles, since it’s good for any AFL player to see another seize a chance to move up. Jones called his opportunity a bit of a ‘catch-22,’ since he didn’t want to abandon the Soul and their championship aspirations, but it still wasn’t a tough decision.
“You get opportunities like this, you can’t pass it up,” he says. “And [my teammates], they want me to come and do my thing over here and possibly open doors for more guys like me.”
Living the Dream
So it’s definitely a tough road ahead for Jones, who, Plank mentions, just doesn’t have as much invested in him as some of the Eagles’ early-round draft picks and other younger players. Regardless, he’s making his way through the camp and got some touches last week during the Eagles’ preseason opener (2 catches for 10 yards). His perseverance and dedication to get where he is have been remarkable.
“I’m just competitive. I love the game of football, and you know, I’ve always believed in myself and my abilities,” he says. “You’re not always gonna be able to run around at a high level and play football or play any sport. If you have ability, you want to do it for as long as you can, because you don’t want to be that guy working on Monday morning and looking forward to Friday so you can have a couple days off from work. You want to be doing something you love for as long as you can do it.”
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