Football 101: No. 51, Walter Jones
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Michael Lewis is not just a writer. He’s a wizard. Here’s my proof: He has written two books — Moneyball and The Big Short — that had NO BUSINESS becoming movies. One is a book about a baseball front office trying to use analytics to overcome their inherent financial disadvantage. The other is a book about some offbeat characters who saw the 2008 financial collapse coming.
Neither has boy-meets-girl, neither has a murder to solve, neither has a superhero, neither has what you could really call a happy ending (in Moneyball, the movie ends with the A’s beating the Royals in the regular season; The Big Short ends with the country in financial ruin).
And yet both movies were not only made, they’re both good.
And the reason, I think, is that Michael Lewis can make ANYTHING fascinating.
And this includes left tackles.
When Lewis wrote The Blind Side: Evolution of the Game, he was telling two stories. One, poignantly, was the unlikely story of Michael Oher, who grew up in difficult circumstances, was adopted and developed into a star offensive lineman. This actually was something of a movie plot.
But the other story was about the left tackle, which for sports fans had to be among the most anonymous positions in sports, but for NFL teams had become one of the most important positions in all of football, maybe even the second-most important position after quarterback.
And this is because the left tackle protects the quarterback’s blind side.
Michael Lewis tracks all this back to Lawrence Taylor’s famous and infamous blindside sack of Joe Theismann on Monday Night Football, the one that snapped Theismann’s leg in half.
“The fans, naturally, more interested in effect than cause, follow the ball and come away thinking they know perfectly well what happened,” he wrote. “But what happened to the ball, and the person holding the ball, was just the final link in a chain of events that began well before the ball was snapped. At the beginning of the chain that ended Joe Theismann’s career was an obvious question: Who was meant to bock Lawrence Taylor?”
And so, Lawrence Taylor retired in the early 1990s. Here are the left tackles who were All-Pro from 1996 through 2006 — call them the “Walter Jones Years.”
1996: Gary Zimmerman (Hall of Fame), Willie Roaf (Hall of Fame)
1997: Tony Boselli, Jonathan Ogden (Hall of Fame)
1998: Boselli, Larry Allen (his only year at left tackle - Hall of Fame)
1999: Boselli, Orlando Pace (Hall of Fame)
2000: Ogden, Pace, Roaf
2001: Walter Jones (Hall of Fame), Ogden, Pace
2002: Jones, Ogden, Tra Thomas
2003: Ogden, Pace, Roaf
2004: Jones, Pace, Roaf
2005; Jones, Roaf
2006: Jammal Brown, Jones, Ogden
What a golden era of left tackles.
Before we get to Jones, we should probably say a few words about Tony Boselli — my friend Peter King has been a staunch advocate for Boselli as a Hall of Famer even though he played only six seasons in the NFL. Boselli had chronic shoulder problems along with suffering knee injuries and ankle injuries. It was the shoulder injury that forced him out of football at age 29, but he was a dominating force, as good as anyone for three or four seasons. And because football is so violent and careers are so short, someone that dominant even for too brief a time deserves serious Hall of Fame consideration.
So who was the best of the left tackles in this golden age?
I think it comes down to two players who were so close that it’s practically impossible to separate them.
The first of those is Walter Jones.
Walter Jones was extremely quiet. Maybe that came from being the seventh of eight children born growing up in the small farming town of Aliceville, Ala., about 30 miles west of Tuscaloosa. He was absolutely enormous right from the start —12 pounds at birth?! — and at his size it was more or less inevitable that football would come into his life.
As a billboard of Jones outside of Aliceville said: “He grew up in Aliceville, and boy, did he grow up!”
He didn’t love football, though, not for a long time. Surely people mentioned the sport to him, surely people asked him to play, but it wasn’t until the ninth grade that he considered it. And that’s a wonderful story. As Jones tells is, the Aliceville football coach, Pierce McIntosh, approached him and asked if he had ever thought about playing football. He said no. For one thing, he was a terrific basketball player.*
*As a basketball player in high school, he would shatter a backboard with a dunk.
And for another, his brother had gotten badly hurt playing football, and Walter Jones just wasn’t interested in all that.
Still, McIntosh asked him to work out for him. He had Jones run around a bit, hit a blocking sled, run a few plays. The workout couldn’t have lasted more than a few minutes.
Afterward, Jones asked what he thought.
“I think,” McIntosh responded, “you’re a million dollars walking around broke.”
How about that? Jones’ transcendent offensive line talents were so obvious that it only took a coach in Aliceville a blink to recognize them. And, sure enough, Jones began playing football, and he loved it — he found that he was much bigger AND much faster than every defensive player who came up against him. They stood no chance.
And then came all sorts of complications. He fell behind in his classes and was declared academically ineligible to play his senior year. He dedicated himself to his studies, and got his grades up, but was then told he was STILL academically ineligible his senior year. And so he shipped off to a tiny Christian boarding school called French Camp somewhere in central Mississippi, an hour and a half south of Tupelo and an hour and a half north of Jackson.
He didn’t play football at French Camp, he just tried to get his academic situation squared away so that he could go play for Bobby Bowden down at Florida State — Bowden had seen all he needed to see about Jones’ extraordinary skill.
But it wasn’t easy getting academically eligible … which led to a whole other bit of serendipity. Hugh Shurden, an assistant coach at Holmes Community College — about 45 minutes along the Natchez Parkway from French Camp — was making the rounds for talent, and he was told about Jones. Shurden had never heard of him and never seen him play, but he took one look and invited Jones to meet with the school’s head coach, Robert Pool.
“As soon as I walked into the office,” Jones would say, “he offered me a scholarship.”
“Yeah,” Pool said. “He passed the eye test.”
You just couldn’t miss it — Jones was 6-foot-5, approaching his NFL playing weight of 325 pounds, and he just LOOKED like an athlete. And the looks were real; Big Walt was an athlete. He was so fast that Pool played him at tight end some of the time. Bowden wanted to play him at tight end at Florida State too, but, as he said, “He just got too doggone big.”
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Walter Jones famously worked out by pushing a sports utility vehicle uphill. Walter Payton used to run up mountains, Jerry Rice used to run pattern after pattern in his own footsteps. and Walter Jones pushed SUVs.
I’m not sure that shoving those SUVs is the reason, but nobody — and I mean nobody — could drive a defender quite the way Jones could. Observe the play at 1:25 of this awe-inspiring highlights video.
This particular play comes from a playoff game, Seahawks vs. Panthers, in 2005. As you see, the handoff goes to Shaun Alexander, who became the NFL record holder for most rushing touchdowns in a season that year. He got the bulk of those touchdowns running left behind Walter Jones.
And on this play, Alexander runs left behind Jones, who is locked up with Carolina’s Pro Bowl defensive end Mike Rucker.
Jones gets control of Rucker at the 23-yard marker and begins pushing him forward. Rucker was 6-foot-5, 275 pounds, an NFL force before an ACL injury that essentially ended his career. But as you can see, with Jones driving forward, Rucker is nothing but a prisoner of inertia. He moves backward way faster than he wants and keeps going backward and still keeps going backward until finally he is driven into the turf at the 3.
Jones had pushed him for TWENTY YARDS.
But it’s not the only play you need to understand Jones’ brilliance. Mike Holmgren called Jones the best offensive player he ever coached — not best offensive lineman but best offensive player, and this guy coached Brett Favre, Sterling Sharpe, Antonio Freeman, Dorsey Levens, Shaun Alexander, Steve Hutchinson, etc. Bowden said he was the most complete player to ever show up on the Florida State campus — he was basically an All-American on Day 1. You can find a million quotes like this about Jones.
And the reason is that as great a run blocker as he was — go and watch that Rucker block again — what separates him even from other Hall of Famers was his incredible pass blocking. He was the guardian of the blind side.
And he did it his own way. It’s not like Jones was a textbook pass blocker; coaches used to say that you would never want to teach anyone how to block using Walter Jones film.
That’s because he could do stuff nobody else could do.
He relied on two things as a pass blocker — intense film study and otherworldly nimbleness.
Because he studied his opponent so carefully and thoroughly, he knew exactly what they wanted to do to beat him.
Because he was as quick as any big man to ever play the game — Greg Bishop wrote that he was so light on his feet, coaches could not even hear his footsteps as he ran by — he was able to get to the spot before his defender.
This meant that not only did he not give up sacks, but he was almost never out of position and — as such — was almost never called for holding. Of all the incredible numbers that describe Walter Jones’ career, the number nine probably says it best: That’s how many times he was called for holding in 180 games. That’s one hold per 20 games — fewer than one hold per season.
He always got there first.