NFL PLAYOFFS : A 49er by Accident : Brent Jones Became One of the NFL's Best After Being Cut by Steelers in 1986

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Admittedly, for the purposes of career advancement, car wrecks are not for everybody.

On the lecture circuit, Brent Jones is quick to warn: Kids, do not try this at home.

Yet it's difficult to imagine where Jones might have ended up had it not been for a fender bender.

Probably not in San Francisco, where he has established himself as one of the NFL's premier tight ends. Probably not on the cover of the 49ers' 1994 media guide. (OK, it's the back cover, but he's working his way forward.)

Probably not at Candlestick Park on Sunday, where he will be asked to infiltrate the air space of the Dallas Cowboys' vaunted zone defense.

Probably not in Honolulu, where Jones will take part in his third consecutive Pro Bowl come February.

The presumption is that Jones, wrapping up his eighth season, was one of those Bill Walsh bargain-basement discoveries, a 1986 fifth-round draft choice from Santa Clara who somehow fell through the cracks.

While other draftniks looked on, the presumption goes, Walsh, then the 49er coach and possessor of the brainiest noodle in the football business, saw Jones as the missing piece in his 49er offensive chess board.

The previous year, remember, after Kansas City selected Ethan Horton with the 15th pick, it was Walsh who stole receiver Jerry Lee Rice from Mississippi Valley State at No. 16.

This Walsh-finds-Jones scenario is a logical one, but entirely untrue.

Jones was indeed a fifth-round selection in 1986--of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Five days after the draft, 49er fans caught a break--between the fourth and fifth vertebrae.

"I got in a car accident," Jones recalled this week in Tempe, where the team was taking mid-week refuge from the storm-torn Bay Area. "Me and my wife, (Dana), my fiancee at the time. We were a couple of houses away from my house in San Jose. I herniated a disk in my neck and was out for several months.

"The Steelers were good about it at the time. The situation was they felt like I could be their tight end, but I wasn't able to practice there for a while. They said they were going to have patience with me. It was going pretty well. Then, about a month into the season, they had some cost-cutting going on, and they felt like, 'Hey, your neck might not get better.' "

The Steelers cut Jones.

"I came home and was frustrated, wondering if I was going to have a chance to play again."

Enter San Francisco. With nothing to lose, the 49ers signed Jones as a free agent and invited him to camp in 1987. The team didn't even have to cough up air fare.

When Jones arrived at the team's training camp in Rocklin, Calif., the line for tight end formed at the rear.

"I was eighth-string," Jones said.

There were Russ Francis, Ron Heller, John Frank and Cliff Benson, to name only four.

Jones would commiserate with another newcomer backup, quarterback Steve Young, acquired from Tampa Bay in a 1987 trade.

Jones and Young became roommates and bided their time; Young waited for the great Joe Montana to step aside, Jones for seven tight ends to contract non-life-threatening illnesses.

"He's one of those guys, the ultimate hard worker," Young said of Jones. "They made a spot for him, and now he's in the Pro Bowl. He could have easily never played football. It was against the odds. I think he made himself a player. I don't think anyone knew. He was the only who had an inkling."

Interestingly, Jones would get his chance before Young. Refusing to go away, Jones emerged as the 49ers' starter in 1989 after Frank retired in his prime to attend medical school.

With Montana still at the helm, Jones caught 40 passes for San Francisco's last Super Bowl championship team, including a seven-yard scoring pass against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV.

Jones, 31, has since evolved into one of the game's best.

In the last three seasons, among tight ends, only New England's Ben Coates has more receptions--169 to 162.

Double-team Jones and pay the price. The Rams tried it Nov. 20 and watched Rice finish with 16 catches and three touchdowns.

Don't double-team Jones and he'll camp in your secondary and kill you nine yards at a time.

On a team of offensive stars, Jones is Mr. Reliable.

"I don't know how a quarterback can do it without having a tight end who can find holes inside, against zones," Young said. "Brent is just the best in the league in finding holes and seams. And he catches every ball.

"To me, there's Jerry's greatness and everything else, but I don't think you have a great offense unless you have a great tight end."

Although Jones' receptions were down this season--49 compared to 68 in 1993--most feel it was his finest all-around season. He finished with a career-high nine touchdowns.

Early on, with the 49er offensive line ravaged with injuries and Young taking a beating, Jones was asked to stay in tight and help block for his quarterback.

His role in keeping Young upright may prove his most significant contribution to this year's team.

"I remember how beat up Steve was at the time," Jones said. "To see how good he is now made it all worth it."

Even at the expense of Jones' statistics?

"Funny thing," Jones said, "but you're never really going to get any credit for those type of things. But it's something we felt we had to do at the time."

Blocking did not come easily.

"I've really come a long way," Jones said. "I was generally a wide receiver coming into the league. I've gotten to the point where I think I'm pretty good at it."

Jones made the most of his receiving opportunities. In games against Atlanta, Washington and Dallas, Jones had only one reception--each for a touchdown.

"If you're going to catch one, and it's for a touchdown, at least you can sleep at night," Jones said.

He knows all regular-season sacrifices were but a prelude to Sunday's showdown. Since the 49ers' last Super Bowl victory, Jones has been a part of three NFC title-game losses--one to the New York Giants, two to Dallas.

Jones thinks the 49ers' improved defense will be enough to end the streak.

"We felt like last year, when we played them, we had to score every time we had the ball, and there was frustration," Jones said of the 38-21 loss to Dallas. "We felt like our defense wasn't going to hold them. That makes for a lot of pressure and anxiety in the offensive huddle. Every time you punted the ball you felt like, 'Ah, geez, now we can be down another seven points.' "

If all goes well, Jones might well get a chance to exact some revenge in the Super Bowl against the Steelers, the team that drafted, then deserted him.

Next time, Jones promises to be a real pain in the neck.

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