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Jilted by Giants, Now He's a Rock for Rams : Football: Jones, rarely used backup with New York, proves himself in difficult left tackle spot.

October 15, 1994|MIKE REILLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — In a brief exchange last spring, the New York Giants withdrew their contract offer to offensive tackle Clarence Jones, a restricted free agent, and tried to re-sign him for less money.

Translation: You're a stiff, so we're low-balling you on payday.

Jones' response: Great, I'll go play for the Rams.

Jones, a fourth-round draft pick by the Giants, backed up Jumbo Elliott and Doug Riesenberg for three seasons, playing in only 10 regular-season games.

But five months after leaving the Giants, Jones is earning more money--and respect--as the Rams' starting left tackle.

In the last five weeks, he has shut down some of the league's best pass rushers--Atlanta's Chris Doleman, Kansas City's Derrick Thomas, San Francisco's Rickey Jackson and Green Bay's Sean Jones.

Not bad for somebody expected to be the mop-up guy for Wayne Gandy, the Rams' first-round pick.

"I needed to get out of New York and see what I could do," Jones said. "I had to know: Could I play in this league or not?"

Six games into the season, the Rams are convinced Jones can play left tackle, one of the toughest positions to learn. The tackle must protect a right-handed quarterback's blind side and regularly face the opponent's top defensive end.

Entering Sunday's game against the Giants, Jones has given up only three sacks--one in the last five weeks--after Arizona's Clyde Simmons beat him twice in the season opener.

In two games against Doleman, he held the six-time Pro Bowl selection without a sack.

Thomas, a five-time Pro Bowl pick--no sacks.

Jackson, six Pro Bowls--no sacks.

Sean Jones, who played in his first Pro Bowl last season--one sack.

With a new Pro Bowl player in Jones' face each week, who has been the toughest to stop?

"It's hard to say because they present so many problems in so many different ways," Jones said. "Thomas' quickness, Clyde's strength, Chris Doleman had both, and Sean Jones' long arms and leverage--all are equally difficult, I guess."

The Rams signed Jones, 6 feet 6 and 280 pounds, as an afterthought in May. But now he stands out on a struggling offensive line that has been plagued by injuries and penalties.

The offensive line has committed 23 penalties for 175 yards this season, but only one called on Jones--a 10-yard illegal-use-of-hands call in the second half of a 16-0 victory over Kansas City.

Jones and right guard Leo Goeas are the only opening-day starters still on the offensive line. Guard Keith Loneker is out for the season with a fallen arch. Center Bern Brostek is out at least a month with a sprained ankle and broken bone in his leg. Right tackle Jackie Slater is out three weeks with a slight tear in his triceps muscle.

But Jones just keeps going and going and going . . .

"When all is said and done," offensive line coach Jim Erkenbeck said, "Clarence and (guard-center) Tom Newberry have been the pleasant surprises in my area so far this season.

"Clarence is a different kind of athlete, and I didn't expect him to do the kind of things that he has done here."

Jones' escape from New York came when the Giants withdrew a $287,000 qualifying offer, cut him and wanted to re-sign him for less because of salary cap problems. Jones turned down the offer and sought work elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent.

"It was in my best interest to get out of there (New York) and try to either become a player or not become a player," he said. "At the end of the season, I didn't have the experience that somebody my age needed to play well and perform."

Philadelphia, Green Bay, Atlanta, Cleveland and San Francisco showed interest, but Jones thought his best chance to play was with the Rams.

"He was really unproven in New York," said George Mavrikes, Jones' agent. "He had the talent, but he never got a chance. He played behind two Pro Bowl tackles who hardly ever got hurt.

"He has great feet, talent, size, intelligence, but a lot of people are going to forget about that when he's sitting on the bench. I don't know how many people other than his parents and I knew that he could play."

The Rams didn't think so after working him out in the off-season, but they brought him in as a backup after they drafted Gandy in late April.

He agreed to a two-year deal for $750,000, including a $100,000 signing bonus, pretty decent money for a backup.

"We felt like we were getting a guy who could perform at two different positions (right and left tackle) and be a superior backup," Erkenbeck said. "He was forced into a starting spot . . . he actually won the starting spot, and has performed beyond my expectations."

Mavrikes said the Rams took a big chance on Jones, considering the money they gave him.

"I have to give (Ram director of pro personnel) Jack Faulkner a lot of credit," Mavrikes said, "he had some vision there. The past few weeks, the rest of the league has been calling me and saying, 'Damn George, Jones can play.' "

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