Even on a cold, damp August night at the Meadowlands, there was a considerable buzz when the Jets offense stepped on the field at 2:40 into the first quarter in their preseason debut against Atlanta.
Why? Crouching 7 yards deep in the backfield behind quarterback Chad Pennington was running back Thomas Jones, about to make the first carry on his new home turf.
Jones took the handoff, hit the offensive line, then cut to his left off tackle and scampered toward the sideline for a gain of 5 yards before the Jets faithful gave the promising back a loud ovation.
Welcome to the New York area, Thomas.
"You know it felt good to come up here and for the fans to show you a lot of love, show you a lot of respect," Jones, acquired from the Chicago Bears in March, said after the Jets' 31-16 win over the Falcons. "It means a lot to every player out there because it lets you know they appreciate what you've done and appreciate what you have the potential to do."
On Friday night against the Falcons, who finished third in the NFC and ninth in the NFL in rushing defense last season, Jones showed the versatility that Jets head coach Eric Mangini has been mentioning whenever pressed about the running back.
After displaying speed and cutback ability on the first play from scrimmage, Jones took the second handoff of the game and busted through the block of right guard Brandon Moore for 6 hard yards and a first down. This was Jones, the downhill runner.
"I feel very comfortable with the team. I feel very comfortable with the offense," said Jones. "You know it's a great situation for me for my skills. It allows me to get into the open field a lot."
Jones and running mate Leon Washington carried the load for the Jets offense in the early part of game. The two rushed on 13 of the Jets' first 16 plays from scrimmage.
Rushing yards did not come easy against the Falcons, though.
"We were running in some pretty tough fronts," said Pennington. "They have all kinds of people up in the box. But for the most part, both guys did a pretty good job."
Jones finished the first quarter with seven carries for 26 yards, including two first downs. On his last carry of the night, first-and-goal from the 1-yard line four seconds into the second quarter, Jones dived across the goal line for a touchdown to tie the game at seven.
His final line for the night: eight carries, 27 yards, one TD.
"I thought I played well," said Jones. "You know it's the first game and we're getting the chemistry with the offensive line. I thought Chad did a good job in putting us in good positions. I thought Coach did a good job with playcalling. We practice really hard in training camp, and it's just fun to go out there and play against another team."
Mangini offered measured praise for Jones' performance.
"I thought he did good things. I thought he did a good job in terms of not pressing the hole but being able to bounce out when it wasn't there," said Mangini.
While Washington had the biggest play of the night with a late-first-quarter 86-yard kickoff return that set up Jones' TD, and quarterback Kellen Clemens stole the show with a 16-for-22, 174-yard, three-TD performance, it was the running game that was the main focus in the Jets' preseason opener.
"That's really what we wanted to do with a combination of Thomas and Leon, the different combinations of linemen that we're using, some new concepts in the running game," said Mangini. "All those things we wanted to focus on, and there's no better time than the preseason to do that."
While that meant putting a restraining order on Pennington, it gave Jones the opportunity to show his stuff, and for that, he and Jets fans alike were grateful.