Good thing it’s only May.
Sean Locklear again was the starting left tackle and Ray Willis was the right tackle during Seattle’s latest offseason practice Thursday. It’s a preview of life without Jones, the bedrock blocker who is likely to be out at least until training camp following major knee surgery.
“That’s the reason we signed (Locklear) to a long-term deal. And it’s the reason we signed Ray Willis,” Seahawks president Tim Ruskell said of contracts given to each understudy in the last 15 months.
“I feel we’ve done a nice job creating a succession plan.”
For the last dozen years, it would have been heresy to even whisper such a plan around Seattle. But Jones finally crumbled last season, after years of shoulder surgeries and taking practices off to preserve his battered body.
The nine-time Pro Bowler at the line’s most valued position, who has started all 180 games he’s played since Seattle drafted him sixth overall from Florida State in 1997, missed his first game because of injury since his rookie season then had microfracture surgery on his left knee on Dec. 11. In January, Jones turned 35. That’s older than every Seahawk except Olindo Mare, the kicker.
For the last 12 years, Jones has banged into the sport’s best pass rushers as Seattle’s invaluable protector of the quarterback’s blind side, the man against whom all other left tackles are judged.
“It’s kind of hard to imagine the Seahawks without Walter Jones,” Willis said Thursday, about an hour after Jones walked off during practice to continue his rehabilitation in the training room. “He’s a freak of nature, the way he keeps performing at an elite level.”
The man former coach Mike Holmgren called the best offensive player he ever coached is now facing something at least as formidable as DeMarcus Ware. The Dallas pass rusher repeatedly and alarmingly blew past Jones, who was playing with a painkilling injection, and pounded quarterback Matt Hasselbeck all last Thanksgiving Day. It was the final game Hasselbeck started in 2008 before he rested his bad back for good, and the last one Jones started before the procedure that drilled holes into the bone of his knee to regenerate cartilage five months ago.
The general recovery time for the surgery calls for running to begin by six months and a return to competition by nine months, a span that would end two days before the opener against St. Louis on Sept. 13.
Seattle is expecting Jones will be on the shorter ends of those rehabilitation estimates because the tiny holes were drilled into a non-weight-bearing bone in his leg.
Last month, while standing on the sideline during a voluntary minicamp, Jones said he hasn’t even thought of retirement.
“I still love it. That’s the main key,” Jones said. “I’m not ready to put my cleats up.”
For now, Jones wears sneakers while doing physical therapy. Locklear and Willis are the ones wearing spikes on the field, on a starting offensive line that is learning the new terminology and zone run-blocking schemes of first-year offensive coordinator Greg Knapp.
Locklear was a third-round draft choice in 2004 out of North Carolina State who has been inconsistent at right tackle. He said the new schemes are in some ways easier than the man-on-man blocking of Holmgren’s old offense. Locklear estimated Knapp’s schemes provide the tackles help from teammates on 95 percent of the blocking assignments.
Knapp thinks Locklear is ready to play left tackle.
“He has shown me that he can play consistently there,” Knapp said. “Is it as good as Walter Jones? No. That’s hard to match. But he has shown the versatility and the athleticism that he can play a strong left tackle.”
Ruskell thought enough of Locklear to sign him to a new deal just before free agency began last year. That deal through 2012, and the two-year contract Seattle gave Willis, hint the Seahawks expect just one more season from Jones.
Locklear’s base salary is scheduled to spike from $1 million to a left tackle-like $4.85 million in 2010, closer to the $6.2 million Jones is to earn his year. Willis is also getting $1 million this year, which is scheduled to double to starter money in 2010.
Not that Locklear is itching to replace Jones.
“I’m hoping he’s going to play a couple more years,” Locklear said.
So does Hasselbeck and the rest of Seattle.