NEW YORK — Don’t ask quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to rate the best pass rushers in the National Football League during his time in Seattle.
So often, he said, their names never even appeared in his scouting reports. “Not because (they) weren’t good, but we just never talked about the right defensive end,” Hasselbeck said. “There was just never a need to.”
In the games as in the scouting reports, Walter Junior Jones simply made them disappear. He did it with a surprising grace that belied his power, and with an ease that almost unfairly diminished a generation of the game’s best pass rushers.
Seahawks left tackle Walter Jones on Saturday was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on his first year of eligibility after a 12-season career in which he was voted to nine Pro Bowls and earned seven All-Pro honors.
Considered the most consistently dominant left tackle of his time, Jones was called for holding an average of less than once per season, and was beaten for 23 total sacks over the length of his career – fewer than twice a year.
But statistics are deficient when assessing offensive linemen. Better, then, to poll the qualitative opinions of those who know the game, and who bore witness to Jones’ mastery.
Mike Holmgren called Jones the best offensive player he ever coached. The statement places Jones, in Holmgren’s eyes, atop a list of offensive stars that includes Hall of Famers Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jerry Rice, along with certain future inductee Brett Favre.
Jones, it seems, was born to be a left tackle, at 11-pounds and 15 ounces. Growing into a marvel of mass and velocity, he left Florida State after his junior season, stunning scouts with his size (6-5, 320) and his speed (timed by some in the 4.6s over 40 yards).
The Seahawks, who never had a Pro Bowl offensive lineman in franchise history, used the sixth pick in the 1997 draft to conscript Jones, a move personnel people at the time assured was a steal.
In a move to bolster their defense at the time, the Hawks signed Pro Bowl linebacker Chad Brown, a free agent who had 17 sacks for the Pittsburgh Steelers, including four in the preceding post-season.
“I get to Seattle, a big-money free agent,” Brown recalled in an interview during Super Bowl XVLIII week. “Suddenly, I’ve got to go against this rookie left tackle, and I’m thinking I’m going to teach this guy a few lessons.”
On the one-on-one pass protection drill against Jones, Brown was going to unleash a move with which he picked up two sacks in one game against Jacksonville’s Tony Boselli, at the time, considered the top left tackle in the game.
“Everyone respected my speed rush,” Brown said. “I got three or four steps upfield, and all the other tackles would open their hips and go back, but Walter was so athletic he could still play neutral and not over-commit to stop my speed rush. So, when I went to jab and cut back inside, he shoots me with his inside hand and freezes me.”
Jones stonewalled Brown with a shot from his right hand.
“That was about as humbling a moment as there could be,” said Brown, who played 15 seasons in the NFL and registered 79 career sacks. “And that humbling continued quite a while; I played there for eight years.”
Brown thinks Jones’ technical excellence, in the long run, made him a worse player because “I think I lost my pass-rush mojo.” So often in practices, he said, there was no point in trying to beat Jones with any number of moves that might crush the mass of the league’s normal tackles.
“He was the most athletic big man I ever played against,” Brown said.” It started with his feet; he was so smooth with his athleticism. He wasn’t a violent player. He was just going to out-athlete you, and eventually he’s just going to rob you of your will.”
Former Seahawks defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes captured that capacity to “rob” opponents of their will when he described Jones’ typical game day. He said it was if Jones brought the opposing pass-rush ace to the stadium in a paper lunch bag, pulled him out of the bag to publically dominate him for three hours, and then put him back in the bag and take him home when he was finished.
Willie McGinest can offer an opponents’ perspective, having played 15 seasons in the NFL, and having set the league record for postseason sacks.
“When you talk about Hall of Famers, he’s one of the most consistent guys over a long period of time at the left tackle position, and that’s one of the hardest things to do,” McGinest said. “It’s the skillset he brought to the game, his mentality, and his feet – he had better feet than some defensive backs.”
McGinest pointed to a skill that fans probably couldn’t detect, but was part of the “mentality” he referenced. “He knew what you did best as a rusher, and he was able to keep you from doing it. He kept you from doing the things you wanted to do.”
An understated southern gentleman, Jones graciously accommodated interviews but it was rarely a productive endeavor.
A joke that went around the locker room was that Jones didn’t know the names of all his teammates. And in response, he would say, “I know the ones I need to know.”
Teammates say that’s not an accurate picture of Jones.
“He was a great teammate,” Hasselbeck said. “Really fun, one of the best laughs of any locker room I’ve ever been in. He talks a lot more now than he did when he was a player. I think all of us feel really fortunate to have gotten to play with him, to be his teammate. Honestly, I’m not just saying this, he was one of the best teammates I’ve ever had.”
Receiver Mike Pritchard was with the Seahawks when Jones arrived, and recalled how the players were awed by his athleticism from the first day. But they grew to appreciate Jones’ nature equally.
“He was such a wonderful guy and a quiet soul,” Pritchard said. “He did his work, didn’t complain. He focused on what he had to do.”
Seahawks offensive line/assistant head coach Tom Cable, when he joined the team in 2011, got in the film room to study Jones and make cut-ups as a training guide for his young tackles.
“Studying him over and over, you see that he’s so rare,” Cable said. “There’s nothing he can’t do, and he made it look so easy. You almost had to be careful (showing young players) because he did things so well that you might be painting an impossible picture. His feet and his balance were so incredible that he might do something wrong but he could make it turn out right with just one step.”
And at times on film, Cable would see examples when “he would just overwhelm people … it was a real gift.”
Cable’s studies of Jones were an attempt to extend the legacy, and pass it along to the likes of current left tackle Russell Okung.
“Every time I see (Jones), I say, ‘You’re the best, the best left tackle to play the game,’ ” Okung said. “He wasn’t afraid of anybody … I never saw him change his game for anybody. That’s what made him great.”
But playing in remote Seattle, on teams that were generally middling, limited Jones’ national profile.
“I think in some ways it’s a shame that he was such a quiet and humble dude, and that we were in Seattle, kinda far removed – so Walter didn’t get the national spotlight as much,” Brown said. “But I played against the best left tackles in football, all franchise players, and Walter was clearly the best of them.”
I had the privilege of staffing Jones’ career from his welcoming press conference when he was drafted to the day he showed up to quietly announce his retirement.
In the 180 games in-between, I watched Jones through my binoculars from the press box. He played with such economy of motion, and both physical and emotional equanimity. Never a taunt nor an absence of sportsmanship.
He played with an understated dignity.
The Hall of Fame embraces the elite of the elite. But there are some who are more, who through their manner and bearing bring honor to the game. Maybe there should be a special wing in the building in Canton for those few.
Walter Jones belongs there.