“You’re simply the best, better than all the rest
Better than anyone, anyone I’ve ever met …”
It’s not just that the chorus from Tina Turner’s 1991 hit-turned-retirement-anthem has become a cliché; the redundancy of its overuse has spoiled the sentiment for occasions when it really is appropriate.
Like Thursday, when Walter Jones announced his retirement after 13 seasons with the Seahawks – and a decade of dominance as the best left tackle of his generation, and perhaps the best to ever play the game.
The decision is hardly a surprise, because Jones missed all of last season after having microfracture surgery on his left knee and the club acquired his long-term replacement a week ago by selecting Russell Okung with the sixth pick in the NFL draft.
But the circumstances don’t diminish the significance of Jones’ retirement.
The club is retiring his No. 71 – making Jones and Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent the only players in franchise history to receive the honor. Also, Gov. Christine Gregoire has proclaimed Friday as Walter Jones Day in the state of Washington.
But there will be no farewell news conference, at Jones’ request – no, insistence.
“Not surprising,” tackle Sean Locklear said. “That’s Walt.”
Jones, 36, will leave the Seahawks just as he arrived as a first-round draft choice in 1997 – with a lot of other people saying glowing things about him, buy nary a word from the man himself.
Told that Jones was passing on stepping into the spotlight that he spent his career avoiding, Robbie Tobeck laughed and recalled Jones’ tweet on Super Bowl weekend that hinted at his retirement.
“As I said when he tweeted a few months back, ‘That’s probably your press conference right there. If he is indeed retiring, that’s all you’re going to hear and it’s over now,’ ” said Tobeck, the Seahawks’ center and Jones’ line mate from 2000-06.
In talking to his former teammates and coaches this week, the recurring themes were how freakishly talented Jones was on the field, and how incredibly quiet he was off the field.
On the field, he was voted to the Pro Bowl nine times, including eight consecutive selections (2001-08) – both franchise highs. Also included on his resume are six All-Pro berths. He was voted to the NFL Team of the Decade for the 2000s. His 180 starts rank second in club history behind only Largent (197).
Jones was so good, for so long, that any discussion of the best players to ever line up at left tackle quickly gets to his name, if not start with his name. In 2005, The Sporting News ranked Jones as the best player in the game, regardless of position.
“Walter is the best lineman I ever coached,” said Howard Mudd, Jones’ line coach in his rookie season. “And that’s saying something.”
Mudd, who just retired after 35 seasons as a coach in the league, also was a Pro Bowl guard for the San Francisco 49ers during his seven-season playing career. He has coached and seen a lot of talented left tackles, and his list of best-ever candidates includes Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz, Tony Boselli, Jonathan Ogden, Orlando Pace, Jim Parker and Russ Washington.
Big men who played even bigger, because of their skills and especially their passion. But in discussing them, Mudd was comparing them to Jones.
“Walt Jones, he set the bar really, really high,” Mudd said. “The next guy I think of is Anthony Munoz, and he played a long time ago. This is 20 years later, and you’ve got another one who is like that. And I’m not sure Walt isn’t better.
“So the point I’m making is, Walt is maybe the best one that’s ever played that position. Walter was a phenomenal talent, and it started the day he showed up.”
Jones’ skills and athletic ability were so abundant that they transcended his position.
“I tell people, the two greatest athletes I ever played with were Deion Sanders and Walter Jones,” said Tobeck, who played with Sanders when both were with the Atlanta Falcons.
Let that sink in for a moment. Sanders was a flash-and-dash cornerback/kick returner who also played baseball for the Atlanta Braves as well as football the Falcons – once in the same day. An eight-time Pro Bowl selection, Sanders also played for the San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens.
“You don’t think of Walter being such a phenomenal athlete,” Tobeck said. “But when you look at the body size and makeup, and what he could do in the weight room, and what he could do on the field, it’s obvious.
“With Walter, you would say he’s one of the top athletes who probably ever played in the NFL.”
Statistics are hard to come back for offensive linemen, but those available more than support these lofty assessments of Jones’ domination and athletic ability. In 12 seasons, which included those 180 starts, he was penalized for holding nine times.
“That’s unbelievable,” said Randy Mueller, the Seahawks’ VP of football operations when Jones was drafted and now a senior executive with the San Diego Chargers. “That might be as good a stat as I’ve ever heard.”
But wait, there’s more. In 5,703 pass plays, Jones allowed 23 sacks – or one every 248 pass plays. That total includes two to Hall of Famer Bruce Smith in a 2002 game against the Washington Redskins at Qwest Field; and two to the Cowboys’ DeMarcus Ware in Dallas in 2008. The Dallas game was the final one Jones played, when he was hobbled by the knee that needed surgery.
“Walter was never out of position,” Lovat said. “If he got beat, and everybody does on occasion, it wasn’t because he was out of position. Usually something happened. Maybe a trip. Or somebody bumped him.”
With Jones, getting the occasional upper hand only made life more difficult for the opposing player.
“If somebody made him look like a fool once in a million plays, he took it personally,” said Steve Hutchinson, the All-Pro left tackle who played next to Jones from 2001-05. “And when Walt got pissed, there was no chance for whoever he was facing.”
Former Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren once called Jones the best offensive player he had ever coached – which is saying something when you consider that vast group included Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jerry Rice as an assistant with the San Francisco 49ers and Brett Favre as head coach with the Green Bay Packers.
Holmgren, now president of the Cleveland Browns, softened that statement after hearing from some of those players.
“I’ve been privileged in my career to have coached Hall of Famers Jerry Rice, Joe Montana and Steve Young, in addition to a potential Hall of Famer in Brett Favre,” Holmgren said. “Walter Jones, the great Seattle left tackle, is in that category. His quiet leadership and tremendous skills were an inspiration.”
There it is again: Quiet leadership. Jones was the epitome of letting his actions speak so loudly that there was no need to hear his words – the few words he did offer, that is.
“He’s the quietest future Hall of Famer you’ll ever meet,” said Mack Strong, who played fullback for the Seahawks from 1994-2007. “Unless he’s around people he’s really comfortable with, you probably won’t get five words out of him.”
But once you cracked that comfort zone and gained Jones’ trust, well, he could be the life of the locker room – if not the party.
“Early on, I heard he didn’t say much,” said Locklear, who didn’t join the Seahawks until 2004 and then played opposite Jones at right tackle on the line that paved the way for the Super Bowl run in 2005.
“But he was like a kid almost as he got older. He was yelling stuff across the locker room. He enjoyed being funny. He was almost like the clown on the team. You just didn’t see that side, until he got to know you.”
Or, you got to know him and his family, as Tobeck did at the Pro Bowl after the 2005 season. Jones turned his annual Pro Bowl selection into a family vacation – and his extended family, at that.
“Meeting his family at the Pro Bowl one year was a real special treat, because you see how special family is to him,” Tobeck said. “It takes awhile for him to get to know people and become ‘family.’
“That’s what happened over the years with the Seahawks. He was in one place so long that all the faces around him became family to him.”
This humble man comes from humble beginnings. He grew up in Aliceville, Ala., and a billboard on the rural road that leads there sports Jones’ picture and proclaims the community’s pride: “He grew up in Aliceville,” it reads, “and boy, did he grow up.”
Jones weighed 11 pounds, 15 ounces at birth. “Big and beautiful,” is the way older sister Beverly Jones described the baby Walter to the Seattle Times in 2006.
Walter is the next-to-youngest of Earline Jones’ eight children, a brood that also includes, in order: Beverly, Cornelius, Gwendolyn, Danny, Valerie, Tony and Tanya. As for his own family, there’s his wife, Valeria; stepson Rafael; and the twins with the hard-to-forget, just-as-part-to-pronounce names, Walterius and Waleria.
It takes a family that large to provide the roots necessary to nurture a man of Jones’ size (6 feet 5, 325 pounds).
“Walter isn’t just a good football player, he’s a good person,” said Tom Lovat, Jones’ line coach from 1999-2003.
Not to mention a wealthy one. Jones played the game – and beat the system – when the Seahawks named him their franchise player in 2002, 2003 and 2004. Jones skipped training camp and the preseason, finally reporting and signing his one-year tender that was an average of the Top 5 players at his position – at price tags of $4.9 million, $5.7 million and $7.1 million.
Jones didn’t just step in upon his return, he stepped up. He was voted to the Pro Bowl each season, and named All-Pro in 2004 and 2005.
Then he signed the long-term deal that both sides had preferred – a seven-year, $52.5 million contract in 2005 that included a $15 million signing bonus.
“There’s no question Walter beat the system,” Mueller said. “Plus you throw in the fact that he missed three training camps, which is when everybody works on their trade. He’s already the best. So it’s scary to think that he could have been even better.
“So he beat the system in every way.”
Just another chapter in his lengthy legacy, as Jones turned out to be worth every comma, decimal point and dollar sign.
Just how good? The best left tackle of his generation? Definitely. Which brings us back to that question: The best to ever play the position? Very possibly, perhaps even likely.
One thing that Jones definitely became was the “gold standard,” as Mueller put it, for left tackles. Since leaving the Seahawks, Mueller has worked for the New Orleans Saints, Miami Dolphins and now the Chargers.
“Every place, guess what they wanted? They’re trying to find the next Walter Jones,” Mueller said. “You compare everybody now to, well, he’s not Walter Jones. Everybody compares to him. That’s the way the conversation goes.”
It’s also the way the conversation began when the Seahawks were able to trade up to the sixth spot in the 1997 draft to select Jones.
“What you had to keep telling yourself was: This is a 300-pound guy, because he moves like a point guard,” Mueller said. “He just danced and played with people.”
Mueller will get no argument from Pro Bowl defensive end Patrick Kerney, who retired two weeks ago after playing with Jones (2007-09) as well as against him while with the Falcons (1999-2006).
“I faced a number of other Hall of Famers who were fantastic players, and Walt was head and shoulders above them,” Kerney said.
What was it like to play against Jones? “It was like wrestling a bear for three hours,” Kerney once said of the matchup in the 2004 season finale at Qwest Field – when Kerney entered the game with 13 sacks and left with the same total.
This week, when asked that question again, Kerney elaborated.
“Really frustrating, is the best way to put it,” he said, laughing. “For someone who moves like that and is so light on his feet, you’d figure, ‘OK, I’ll be able to move this guy.’ Then you drive you head in his chest to try and bull-rush him. He doesn’t move an inch and you bounce back two feet.
“It really is frustrating. That’s what made Walter so special.”
The essence of Jones’ 13-season run is not lost on the player who will replace him: Okung, the tackle from Oklahoma State the Seahawks drafted last week. While playing a game against Washington State at Qwest Field in 2008, Okung got his first glimpse of the world Jones lived in – and dominated.
“Just seeing his locker made me think that this somewhere that I definitely want to be one day,” Okung said.
When that day finally arrived – last Saturday – Okung took a moment to check out Jones’ cubicle during his tour of the team’s facility on the shores of Lake Washington. It is adorned with the brick-a-brack befitting a warrior of Jones’ stature – decals to signify the team’s AFC West title in 1999, the wild-card playoff berth in 2004, the four consecutive NFC West division titles from 2004-07 and the NFC championship in ’05.
“It’s impressive, definitely,” Okung said of Jones’ locker.
Just like the player who used it.
Now, Jones gets to hurry up and wait – for his induction into the Seahawks’ Ring of Honor and his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
With him, it’s not a matter of if, but when. For all the obvious reasons.
“The young man,” Strong said, “is a freak of nature.”