HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (AP) -Thomas Jones was preparing for the playoffs at this time a year ago, ready to lead the Chicago Bears on a Super Bowl run.
This offseason will come a lot sooner for the veteran running back, who'll head home in a few days - his first season with the New York Jets over and the team's lofty expectations unfulfilled.
``It's been one of my most difficult years,'' Jones said Friday. ``Coming from a Super Bowl team and then to be in a situation like this, where you're not winning as many games, is a tough transition.''
Jones rushed for 1,210 yards for the NFC champion Bears last season and was acquired by the Jets in March to provide a boost to New York's running game. Despite compiling his third straight 1,000-yard season, Jones hasn't been as big a factor in the offense as expected.
``As tough as the situation was this year, I was able to end up with 1,000 yards, which is the benchmark for a positive season for a back,'' he said. ``I was able to accomplish that. I have one game left to do the best that I can and try to pile up more yards and get my team a win. At the end of the day, the main reason that you play this game is to get a win.''
Jones heads into the Jets' game Sunday against Kansas City 12th in the league with 1,021 yards on 285 carries, a mediocre average of 3.6 yards per rush. The most eyepopping number is in the touchdowns column: Jones has one, and he didn't get that until Week 13 at Miami.
``I don't have any regrets,'' Jones said. ``I played as hard as I could this year. I tried my best to be a leader and to be as optimistic and positive as I could. ... I worked hard in practice, trying to set a good example. I tried to do those things this year.''
Coach Eric Mangini and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer have been criticized for misusing Jones by moving away from the run too quickly in games. Jones has carried the ball 25 or more times in just two games, the last when he gained 117 yards on 30 rushes against Pittsburgh on Nov. 18.
He also has struggled to get into the end zone on goal-line situations. Jones, one of the league's most physically gifted running backs, has been stood up time and again at the goal line. A major culprit has been the offensive line's inability to consistently create big enough holes to run through.
``When you're in the first year of an offense, there are a lot of things that you pick up and learn,'' Jones said. ``A lot of times, the only way that you can get accustomed to those things is by playing. I got acclimated to this offense pretty early, but I continued to learn more about the offense as the year went along. Next year, I'll have a head start on what we're trying to do. With a year under my belt in this system, I think I'll be a lot better off.''
Whether Jones is the primary ball carrier again could come into question if the Jets, who might draft as high as No. 2 in April, go after Arkansas' Darren McFadden. The big back is considered a can't-miss offensive threat in the same vein as Minnesota's Adrian Peterson. If the Jets opt to go with McFadden, their backfield would suddenly be a bit crowded with him, Jones and Leon Washington.
``They have to do what they have to do,'' the 29-year-old Jones said. ``I get paid to play football, not to make those decisions. When I was in Chicago, they drafted Cedric Benson. When he came in, I tried to help the guy as much as I could and be a role model for him. Things worked out the way that they did. Whatever decision they make is on them. It has nothing to do with me. I signed a four-year deal here to help this team win football games. That's what I'll continue to do.''
Jones and Benson had a contentious relationship in Chicago, and it's doubtful Jones would want a repeat of that experience. So, would Jones stay in New York if the Jets drafted a running back?
``I wouldn't have a choice,'' he said. ``I'm a premier running back, too. I've been in the league for a while, a couple of thousand-yard seasons under my belt. I wouldn't look at it as would I stay or not because I signed a four-year deal. I'm assuming I'm here, unless someone upstairs tells me differently.''

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