FOXBOROUGH -- Tebucky Jones remembers the April afternoon well. He was driving to Connecticut, with thoughts racing through his head as he prepared for the next phase of his NFL career.
Then his cellphone rang. Patriots coach Bill Belichick was on the line.
It could have been uncomfortable, no doubt. Jones had played five seasons for the Patriots (1998-2002), three of them under Belichick. But now he was being shipped out of town, traded to the New Orleans Saints for three draft picks. Jones already knew the news, but Belichick was calling regardless.
``He was just saying thank you for my time here," recalled Jones, who signed a lucrative contract with the Saints, one he probably wouldn't have received in New England after being given the franchise tag. ``I thanked him back for coaching me, for helping me be a part of a Super Bowl [in 2001] here. We just sort of left it at that."
Although Jones said he understood that the trade was strictly business, the phone call removed any lingering bad taste about the way his Patriots career ended. There were no hard feelings. ``If there were," he said, ``I wouldn't be here right now."
Here is the Patriots' practice field, where the 31-year-old Jones was standing yesterday afternoon. After signing a free agent contract in April, Jones is working as a second-string safety and also figures to be an integral part of New England's special teams (he was working as a gunner on punt coverage yesterday).
Belichick noted Jones's coverage skills on special teams, as well as his ``big, physical presence" at safety. Belichick was also asked how difficult it was to make the call to Jones three years ago.
``I don't think it's that hard, it's mostly business decisions, what you feel is best for the team," he said. ``Without getting into a lot of details on his situation, when we traded him to New Orleans, there were a lot of factors that were in place at that particular time that have now been eliminated for one reason or another. The situations do change, contractually, or what the competition is on the team, or what the player's role is.
``A lot of times, timing is everything."
The time was right for Jones to return to New England, as family considerations were a main factor in his decision. In the offseason, he made the trek from his native Connecticut to Foxborough each day to take part in the team's offseason program. He has since moved closer to Gillette Stadium.
Jones said he considered offers from the Raiders, Jets, and Dolphins, but felt the best fit was the team that drafted him in the first round in 1998. Ten days into training camp, he still believes he made a sound decision.
``I feel like it's a good program and I've been here, so I kind of know what to expect," he said. ``They put the stuff in [on defense] and I know it. I learn fast."
But although some of the defensive terminology is the same, there are changes.
When Jones thinks back to his last experience at training camp with the Patriots, he remembers it at Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I. In those days, players stayed in dorms.
``It seemed like we'd have to walk 20 miles to practice, 20 miles to meetings," he said. ``It's a little easier now with everything all in one place."
Other changes include the team's recently built indoor practice facility, as well as new coaches to learn from (Joel Collier is in charge of defensive backs) and new players alongside him (none of the current safeties were on the roster in 2002). But in many ways, Jones said, the Belichick-run practices are exactly the way he remembers them -- except for one difference.
``The first year he came here [in 2000], it was pretty rough, real tough," said Jones. ``I think the practices are a little easier now."
Jones is looking forward to the first exhibition game Friday at Atlanta because he was limited to just six regular-season games in 2005 after tearing a pectoral muscle. He feels it's important to assimilate to game speed.
Jones has played in 113 career games (75 starts), including Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams in 2002. He had a solid playoff run that year, totaling 15 tackles (11 solo) and intercepting a pass in the AFC Championship game.
Now he's back, the sting from being hit with the franchise tag, and being traded, long gone.
``It was weird at first, because I'm from this area, and when I was drafted here, I hoped to play my whole career here, like Willie [McGinest] almost did," he said. ``But it happened and I just moved on.
``It's cool now. I'm close to home and anything that makes it easier for my family to come watch me play is a good thing. I'm just here working hard, doing what they ask to me to do, trying to work my way back up."