The Evolution of Adam Jones, the Cornerback Formerly Known as Pacman

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMarch 9, 2016

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 1:  Cornerback Adam Jones #24 of the Cincinnati Bengals looks on from the field before a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on November 1, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The Bengals defeated the Steelers 16-10. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Adam Jones is living the dad life. When I first tried to connect for an interview, he was on a Cincinnati-area golf course, trying to get a round in despite near-freezing temperatures. On my second attempt, he was at a daddy-daughter dance with his youngest, five-year-old Triniti.

And if you can't picture Jones taking part in either activity, you're not alone. That's because the evolution of Adam Jones has avoided the national media's radar.

The Jones we know is loud, abrasive and troubled. The guy many of us still refer to as Pacman. The guy who was suspended for an entire season and parts of another for his off-field conduct. The guy who was arrested at least eight times between 2005 and 2013.

But the Jones those closest to him now know is a newlywed in a nine-year relationship, a father of two, an avid golfer, a car aficionado and a horseback rider who has committed the rest of his life to his family.

While watching Jones and the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2015 playoffs, it occurred to me that it had been several years since his name was linked to controversy. As a result, nobody was talking about him, despite the fact the 32-year-old was playing the best football of his life.

Jones has intercepted three passes in each of the last three seasons.
Jones has intercepted three passes in each of the last three seasons.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Earlier this winter, he made his first trip to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. He's intercepted nine passes in his last three seasons and is coming off a year in which he was graded by Pro Football Focus as the 13th-best cornerback in football. Per PFF, Jones surrendered just one touchdown on 75 targets, and only four qualified corners gave up fewer yards per cover snap.

Yet because he had stayed out of trouble, you couldn't blame a casual fan for forgetting Jones was still in the league, at least until the former first-round pick popped off at the tail end of what would be the decisive play in a January playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, drawing a costly penalty for making contact with an official.

It wasn't an ideal way for Jones to return to the public consciousness. He's aware of the reality that a well-behaved and consistently productive cornerback usually dodges headlines. When you play a nonglamorous position in this league, no press is often good press. And that incident—which Jones says he regrets—came as he was on the verge of becoming an unrestricted free agent.

Jones' contract with the Bengals—the three-year, $5.35 million deal he signed in 2013—expires Wednesday. He thinks he can play at least five or six more years at this level, but he'll have to convince his next (or current) employer that his age and baggage won't cause it to regret the investment.

But it's actually sort of amazing we're even having this discussion.

How did the highest-drafted defensive player in 2005 stray so far that he was suspended 22 of a possible 28 games over a two-season stretch for various personal conduct violations—so far that he played just nine games in a three-year span and couldn't find work in 2009and yet somehow bounce back to become not only a law-abiding citizen, but an avid recreational golfer and a family man?

Here's how Adam Jones evolved from punk to pariah to the type of guy who probably owns one of those cheesy "World's Greatest Dad" mugs.

 

Saved by the Bengals

For NFL players looking to be reborn, Cincinnati is a mecca.

Not only have longtime owner Mike Brown and head coach Marvin Lewis developed a reputation for taking chances on draft prospects with red flags, they've also given second, third and eighth chances to myriad veterans who have fallen on hard times on and/or off the field, including Cedric Benson (2008), Chris Henry (2008), Larry Johnson (2009), Matt Jones (2010), Terrell Owens (2010) and Adam Jones (2010).

Lewis has helped Jones get back on track.
Lewis has helped Jones get back on track.Rob Carr/Getty Images

"It helps," Jones said when we finally spent some time catching up last week, "when you can go to an organization where you feel comfortable and all you have to worry about is work, and the city's behind you, your family's behind you.

"I've had some trials and tribulations in Cincinnati, but for the most part it's been really great for me and my family."

When Jones first worked out for the Bengals in February 2010, he had been rejected by the rest of the NFL and turned away by the CFL's Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He had been somewhat of an outcast ever since the Dallas Cowboys cut ties with him one year prior.

And for good reason. Not only was his rap sheet already long, but it was wide: assault and felony vandalism charges stemming from a nightclub altercation in 2005, accused of throwing a punch at an officer in 2006, pleaded no contest to conspiracy to commit disorderly conduct in connection to a Las Vegas strip club shooting that left a man partially paralyzed in 2007, accused of public intoxication and assault in two separate 2006 incidents (both charges were dropped).

Jones made a lot of court appearances in his 20s.
Jones made a lot of court appearances in his 20s.Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

A stellar cover corner and return man, Jones had four interceptions and five touchdowns during his first two seasons in the league, but the incident in Las Vegas cost him his entire '07 season when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell handed down an unprecedented suspension. And when it became clear he wouldn't be reinstated by Goodell to start the '08 season, the Titans traded Jones to Dallas, where he lasted just one suspension-plagued season. The Cowboys released him in 2009 only weeks after reports surfaced that Jones may have been involved in a separate strip club shooting in Atlanta back in '07.

What's past is prologue, which is why Jones' rap sheet is compulsory to the story of his evolution. But when we first connected last month, he indicated he had zero interest in discussing the first half of his NFL career.

That doesn't come as a surprise. The practice of excavating proverbial skeletons isn't pleasurable, and it certainly isn't good for business when you're an impending free agent. Besides, I don't blame the 32-year-old Adam Jones for having no fresh thoughts on the indiscretions committed by the 25-year-old Pacman Jones, which is why I agreed to focus in general on who he has become rather than what he was.

And it's clear he wouldn't have become what he is if not for the Bengals.

"There aren't a lot of organizations that are willing to take the hit for the franchise by giving guys second chances," he said, "but Mr. Brown has been good to me, and I think I've held up my end of the bargain."

Cincinnati has by no means been a turbulent-free sail. Jones was arrested twice in 2013—he paid a $130 fine for disorderly conduct after police accused him of making offensive comments during a traffic stop, and he was later found not guilty of assault related to an alleged incident outside of a Cincy bar—but this is a man who experienced at least six run-ins with the law during his first two years in professional football.

You can argue whether he deserves a pat on the back for simply avoiding handcuffs, but the mere fact Jones has run into trouble "only" a few times since the NFL first appeared to be leaving him for dead in 2009 indicates something has changed. Cynics might also ask rhetorically whether he's been lucky rather than good, but conversations with Jones and those around him have this cynic convinced his turnaround isn't a fluke.

Jones spent a week in Hawaii at his first Pro Bowl this winter.
Jones spent a week in Hawaii at his first Pro Bowl this winter.Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals gave him a shot when few others would, and they were patient when he slipped up in 2013. Now he's going on three years without a known incident involving the law. Cincinnati's investment paid off, especially with Jones' very first Pro Bowl nod in 2015.

"Great power comes with great responsibility," former teammate Dhani Jones (no relation) said. "But even with that great power and great responsibility, it really depends on what types of advisers you have around you. It's not just an athlete; it's anyone who's young and evolving and growing and making mistakes along the way. But at the same time, it's also how forgiving and amenable and sensitive people are to who you are, where you come from, what you believe in and what you're doing in life. And I think the Brown family takes that into consideration and allows a lot of people to mature."

Adam Jones has felt the love in Cincinnati. He claims Brown, Lewis, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther ("Pauly G"), defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle ("K.C.") and former coordinators Hue Jackson and Mike Zimmer ("Zim") get him.

In the early days, Jones' supporting cast was composed of hangers-on. These days, his posse is made up of coaches, veteran teammates and core family members—those with little or no incentive to take handouts, like Pauly G and K.C., as well as his mom, his wife and his two daughters.

"What's so special about the Bengals is the fact that they recognize and understand that when you're young, you're still evolving as a person," said Dhani Jones, whose last season in Cincinnati was Adam's first. "It doesn't matter who you are and what you do, you're growing. And I think there's a thought that because you're in a high-profile position, you have to grow up faster. I'm not denying the fact that's true, but I'm suggesting that it takes a moment for people to grow in some way, shape or form. And everybody's in a different situation."

 

Saved by Adam Jones

Indeed, everybody's in a different situation. Some are more complicated than others. Jones' situation is rocket science, or the psychological equivalent.

When he was 10, his father was shot and killed. His grandmother, Christine, helped his mother, Deborah, raise him in crime-ridden Atlanta housing projects. But Deborah was locked up often, forcing Christine to carry much of the load. When Christine died of cancer during Adam's junior year at West Virginia, Deborah says her son lost his desire to finish school and became dead set on "getting a taste" of the NFL as quickly as possible.

None of it strikes you as particularly wholesome or healthy, which doesn't excuse the mistakes Jones made during the early part of his career in Tennessee. But it does make it easier to understand how he crashed so hard. He was immature, temperamental, reliant on vices and, suddenly, very, very rich (he made $11.7 million in '05 and '06).

Jones was 23 years old when the Las Vegas incident took place. At that time, he was still known to the sports world as Pacman—a nickname his mom gave him as an infant. If anything symbolically represents Jones' maturation, it's his decision in 2008 to ditch that moniker in favor of his given name.

"It's the difference between being 21 and 31," said Jones of the name change. "At 31, you're a grown man. But to my mom and family, I'll always be Pacman. And on Sundays, I'm always going to be Pacman Jones."

That's an important point, because it's not as though Jones has lost his edge. The incident at the conclusion of that playoff game against the Steelers indicates he's still fiery. It hurt his team in that case, but that trademark intensity has also quite frequently been a boon on Sundays, as well as on the practice field.

"Any coach I've played for—you can look it up, I'm talking about any coach—if they say something negative about me practicing or playing, I'll give you $10,000," said Jones, causing me to starting Googling. "You ain't going to find that. Because I enjoy what I do. I had the game taken away from me, and I know when it's gone, it's gone.

"I enjoy working out, and every Sunday being an assh--e. We get paid to do a job, and my job is really to be an assh--e."

Over the years, it appears Jones has found a way to better compartmentalize his emotions. If he's an assh--e on Sunday, he doesn't need to be an assh--e on Friday night. That might explain why he told me he wants to play 10 more seasons.

"He always says, 'I want to play until there's nobody in this world who will let me play football,'" his agent, Peter Schaffer, said.

Fewest yards allowed per cover snap, 2015
CornerbackSnapsYardsYards/snap
1. Patrick Peterson6053510.58
2. Josh Norman6934570.66
3. Richard Sherman5954330.73
4. Kyle Fuller5744250.74
5. Adam Jones5574160.75
6. Patrick Robinson4083190.78
7. Desmond Trufant5464340.79
8. Chris Harris Jr.6345550.88
Pro Football Focus

It has to cause you to wonder where Pacman Jones would be right now if he wasn't saved by Adam Jones.

"I think that was one of the biggest changes that he could have ever made is declare to the world that he is no longer Pacman," said Dhani Jones, noting that his former defensive teammate got mad at folks who referred to him as Pacman. "First, you have to decide within yourself, and sometimes that's a decision that people never make. But he made it for himself, and that sets you on a course. And you saw that change almost immediately."

Of course, a simple name change didn't make Jones an upstanding citizen. He had to put in work. He had to come to some important realizations.

"You get to a point in your life where it doesn't matter what city you go to; it's just a time where you're either going to get it right or get it wrong," he said. "That's got a lot to do with it."

"The biggest part of it was him realizing that whatever he was doing was not working," added Deborah Jones, who suggests her son was "scared straight" by his early missteps and the consequences that followed. "It starts with you."

 

Saved by His Family

It's clear that misplaced support (or an absence of support altogether) exacerbated Jones' problems during the stormy initial half-decade of his pro career. But it's also obvious that he has benefited from newfound support on the road to redemption. 

Don't underestimate the roles played by his mom, Deborah, and his wife, Tishana, as well as his daughters, Zaniyah (10) and Triniti (five).

In fact, don't underestimate the difference two pounds can make. That's what Triniti—born more than four months premature at 23 weeks—weighed when she came into this world the same summer Jones began to turn his career around by signing with Cincinnati.

Deborah Jones remembers receiving a call from her son soon after Triniti was born, the tough guy sobbing, claiming he didn't know what to do. She flew to Cincinnati and advised Adam to "do the right thing, and things will work in your favor."

But despite the fact only a third of infants born at 23 weeks' gestation survive, according to a 2015 report from the Journal of the American Medical Association, Triniti—after spending more than a month in the hospitalpulled through, and Adam and Tishana were able to bring their daughter home.

Five years later, she's healthy and happy and able to dance with her dad while he dotes on her on Instagram.

Instagram.com/realpacman24

"She went through a lot of stuff and couldn't do anything about it," said Jones. "To see her running around having fun with a smile on her face, words cannot even express the feeling I get."

Deborah Jones believes that experience "really woke [Adam] up," and her son agrees. In fact, the whole thing had him considering everything, including his own karma.

"That s--t will humble you," he said. "You look at it like, 'Damn, I can't do anything about what she's going through.' And in your mind you're like, 'Damn, what have I done to people?' or think, 'Could I have treated people better?' All that stuff goes through your mind at the time. You can kill me tomorrow as long as my girls can live a better life than I went through. The only thing I live and die for is my two girls."

 

Saved by Wholesome Hobbies

"I never imagined golf for him," said Deborah Jones, "but it's working in his favor."

That makes two of us, yet Jones hits the links nearly every day in the offseason. He has a timeshare at the Legacy Vacation Club near Orlando and is a member at Stillmeadow in Cincinnati, where he got in five holes a couple of weeks ago despite 40-degree temperatures. He normally shoots between 85 and 90 but has gone as low as 81 at nearby Ivy Hills.

Jan 29, 2016; Kahuku, HI, USA; Team Irvin cornerback Adam Jones of the Cincinnati Bengals (24) during 2016 Pro Bowl practice at Turtle Bay Resort. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I never thought I'd write this, but Adam Jones has golfing buddies. Schaffer plays with him often and believes his client and friend is just a couple of years away from becoming a single-digit handicapper. Fellow cornerback Leon Hall, who introduced him to the game when they became teammates in 2010 (he hit one good chip shot and was hooked), is his primary playing partner. Jones also plays frequently with fellow Stillmeadow members Rich Morton and Paul Carpenter. And when he made his first trip to the Pro Bowl in January, Carpenter came along.

Acting on a tip that his wife has him under control, I asked Jones if Tishana ever cracks the whip in regard to all the golf he plays. His answer speaks volumes to me about his maturation.

"I wouldn't say that she has me on lockdown," he says, before thinking for an extra second or two. "No, she does have me on lockdown.

"She lets me get out on the course whenever I want, but you can't play every day. She'll say, 'Don't forget about me and the family!' It's a love-hate relationship with golf, but I think she understands how much I care for the game. It relaxes me."

Instagram.com/realpacman24

Yes, Adam Jones has been tamed. Adam Jones has found ways to relax. Those include golf, cooking, horseback riding (I swear to God) and fast cars (his favorite? The 2015 Hellcat).

And of course, his daughters. It always comes back to them.

"I do not take it for granted," Jones said of fatherhood. "You might think I'm just bulls--tting with you, but I swear to God to you, my girls are everything that I've got in the world. I love my mom to death and I love my wife, too, but there's nothing that can separate me from my girls."

 

It's (Still) Complicated

It's hard to believe nine years have passed since Adam "Pacman" Jones became a national sports villain. The moment the details of that Las Vegas shooting—that Jones, according to police, instigated a strip club melee before a man who claims he was doing Jones' bidding opened fire on club employees—were made public, the 23-year-old became a poster child for poor behavior in the NFL.

Jane Kalinowsky/Associated Press

By no means was he a victim. He was a grown man, and he made a huge mistake that contributed to putting one manAaron Cudworth, then the club's bouncer—in the hospital, and another—Tommy Urbanski, the club's manager—in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Due primarily to that incident, Adam Jones will never fully shake the abhorrent reputation Pacman earned. For his role that night, he was sentenced to a 12-month suspended sentence and probation for a year. What's more, because a jury found in 2012 that Jones incited the original conflict by "making it rain" and then losing his cool when dancers collected the money he threw on stage, he owes $12.4 million in damages to the victims.

When Jones refers to that and the rest of his transgressions, he uses terms like "such and such" and "this and that." That probably traces back to his aversion to discussions regarding his past in general. I can't tell if he's simply tired of the topic or if he still hasn't come to terms with the trouble he contributed to, especially considering one particular answer he provided when I asked him about forgiveness—a soliloquy that raised respectable and valid points but lacked regret and/or an apology.

"I've had certain things that I've had to fight myself about forgiving people over," said Jones. "People don't understand like, 'Why are you mad about such and such in Vegas?' Well, Vegas changed my whole life and none of that was right. But at the end of the day, when you go back and look at stuff, if you can't forgive anybody, what the f--k are you going to be? I have no regrets, but I forgave everybody, and I hope they forgive me. Because at the end of the day, people go through something to get to something. At the end of the day, you live, you learn, and you can't worry about everything and everybody's feelings. If they forgive me, God bless them. I forgave everybody who I think has done something wrong to me."

And I do know that even orbiting issues from the first part of his career causes him to dramatically change his tone.

"I grew up in inner-city projects, and all my life people would tell me what the f--k I couldn't do and how to do s--t," he said. "I've been through a lot of trials and tribulations. They always told me I can't do this, I can't do that. At the end of the day, this s--t is going to end the way I always envisioned. I've always thought I'm going to get the last laugh. I've had a whole bunch of dark times, real dark times. Through all the dark times, I've always thought I'm going to get the last laugh in the end. It's always been like that. Even when I f--ked up and did this and did that."

He doesn't mean last laugh in a vindictive way. Instead, he's suggesting he was always confident he'd revive his career, right his wrongs and finish strong. And that mentality apparently runs in the family.

"I used to dream about, 'What if?'" said Deborah Jones, who admits she feared for her son when he was involved in such and such and this and that. "But I knew he was going to wake up and do the right thing."

He has, and now he's a grizzled vet. Jones was the fourth-oldest player on the Bengals roster last season. With all he's come back from, he's got a hell of a lot to draw from when offering younger players advice.

"After everything I've been through," he said, "I'd be a fool to want one of the young guys to go through that."

That might explain why he reached out to the NFL and volunteered to speak at the 2012 Rookie Symposium, where he told soon-to-be NFLers that he once spent over $1 million in one weekend.

"These guys know who the leaders are because they know who to go to when they have questions," said Schaffer, who says his phone conversations with Jones are frequently interrupted when young Bengals players call on the other line. "And it's not just about, 'What do we do on this defense?' It's everything from everyday life."

 

The Market Awaits

Now, for the first time in over a decade, Adam Jones finds himself a hot commodity.

He'll hit free agency Wednesday, and about a half-dozen teams have already expressed interest. He was an All-Pro kick returner in 2014 and a Pro Bowl cornerback with top-notch statistics in 2015. He'll be 33 in September, but he points out that he's got extra tread on his tires because of all the time he missed. And it's hard to argue with that—he's basically played four full seasons and a few abbreviated ones.

Unsurprisingly, he's confident to the point of cocky.

"I'm going to be the best for the next four or five years," he said. "After that, I don't know. But for these next four or five years, it's going to be an argument every day in the media about whether Adam's the best corner. The only reason they aren't saying I'm the best now is because of how the season ended."

That's debatable, but there's little doubt Jones risked leaving a negative final impression on potential future employers when he threw a now mildly infamous and incredibly costly temper tantrum in the final moments of Cincinnati's season.

With the Bengals holding on to a one-point lead with 18 seconds remaining in their January wild-card matchup with the Steelers, Jones' teammate, linebacker Vontaze Burfict, drew a 15-yard personal foul penalty for a late hit to the head on Steelers receiver Antonio Brown. The penalty moved Pittsburgh into field-goal range, but Jones gave kicker Chris Boswell 15 free yards by picking up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when he reacted by berating and making contact with an official.

CINCINNATI, OH - JANUARY 09: Adam Jones #24 of the Cincinnati Bengals argues a call with referee John Parry #132 in the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the AFC Wild Card Playoff game at Paul Brown Stadium on January 9, 2016 in Cincin
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

"Everybody's talking about AB [Antonio Brown] this, AB that, Ben Roethlisberger this, Ben Roethlisberger that," said a still-acrimonious Jones. "If you look at the film, they didn't do s--t. The only thing we gave them was that last drive with the personal foul and touching the ref."

But that was likely the difference between a win and a loss, because Boswell easily converted the ensuing 35-yard field goal, ending Cincinnati's season and causing Jones to make matters worse with a profanity-laced postgame Instagram video, which was quickly deleted.

"I've had a lot of time to reflect on that and what I learned is whatever you gotta do, do it in between the lines," said Jones, who was later fined $12,500 for the incident. "And when the whistle blows, take three breaths and walk away. Anybody who told you that they didn't learn from that would be a fool. You have to learn to control your emotions, so I take full responsibility for it. I promise you it won't happen again."

Has Adam Jones evolved so much over the course of his career that he's earned the benefit of the doubt regarding his latest miscue? We'll have an answer very soon.

 

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.