Deacon Jones: Reflecting on a Legend

This past week, the NFL mourned the passing of a true legend of the game.  The first-ballot Hall of Famer, Los Angeles Ram legend – the man who came up with the word "sack" to describe his relentless pursuit of quarterbacks.  Deacon Jones died in his home Monday night, from natural causes.  He was 72 years old.

Jones was passed up by most teams, and only by chance did the Rams find him – they were tracking down tape of running back prospects, and noted this little-regarded prospect from tiny Mississippi Vocational running them down.  Taking him in the 14th round, Jones made an impact from day one of his NFL career.  As part of the "Fearsome Foresome" defensive line, Jones, along with Merlin Olsen, Lamar Lundy, and Rosey Grier, helped to transform the Rams from a forgotten, also-ran club at the bottom of the NFL into a perennial contender.  The combination of agility, speed, and quickness Jones brought with him were years ahead of its time. In terms of just pure pass-rushing prowess, there may still have never been anyone to equal Jones.

Jones technique was so skilled that they were forced to change the rules to account for him.  With his signature head slap maneuver – a forearm to your front followed by a slap on the other side with his other hand – he could disorient a lineman enough to slip past him – or through him, when necessary.  Jones wasn't the first to use this kind of maneuver of course, but, as he was fond of saying, "Rembrandt, of course, did not invent painting".   They had to ban the maneuver, essentially in response to the unfair advantage Jones had over his opponents.

And make no mistake – it was a major advantage.  There is no official count of sacks in Jones career, as it wasn't an official statistic until 1982, years after Jones retired.  Thanks to the efforts of researchers, though, we do have unofficial numbers, and they speak for themselves.  By the consensus count, he would have retired with 194 ½ sacks, which would have lead the NFL at the time, and still be third – only passed by Bruce Smith and Reggie White.  And remember – Smith and White played in much more pass-heavy environments than Jones did, so they had more opportunities.  In 1967, Jones unofficially scored 26 sacks – shattering Michael Strahan's record of 22.5 in 2001.  This was in 14 game seasons, not the 16 Strahan had!  The very next season, he added another 24 sacks to his total – again, more than Strahan.  Jones is the unofficial sack king, and it isn't even close.

We wouldn't even call them sacks if it weren't for Jones – the man literally coined the term.  "You take all the offensive linemen and put them in a burlap bag, and then you take a baseball bat and beat on the bag. You're sacking them, you're bagging them. And that's what you're doing with a quarterback."  A colorful character through and through, Jones was eminently quotable.  When asked who the toughest athlete in pro sports was in 2008, he didn't hesitate –"I'm probably the toughest (expletive) here. Ain'tno question about that with me. I'm the toughest guy here...I'm clean. I mean, I ain't got no marks on me. I don't know nobody else who can say that who came out of any sport. I ain't got no marks on me, so I've got to be the baddest dude I know of."

The Secretary of Defense was known for his legendary durability, too.  He played in a rougher era of football, with less advanced medicine and staff helping him get back on the field, and yet only missed six games in fourteen years – and avoided the fates of so many of his contemporaries, avoiding those post-career injuries and breakdowns that plague the NFL alumni.  He didn't think very highly of the "cleaned up" safer league the NFL has become since his time.  "I get so pissed off every time I hear Brett Favre say he's played 279 games in a row," Jones said. "I would rather slap my mama than allow a quarterback to play 279 games in a row. Somebody supposed to put him on the ground!"

Of course, there was more to him than just grinding quarterbacks faces into the dirt – his humor and charisma led him to other walks of life, as well.  He tried his hands at singing, backed by the group War, and apparently can be heard on the final recording of "Why Can't We Be Friends".  He appeared in movies and television, cameoing in ALF, Wonder Woman, The Brady Bunch, and more.  He appeared in commercials.  Later on in life, he founded the Deacon Jones Foundation – an organization dedicated to helping people in poor, inner-city neighborhoods prepare for and afford higher education, and encouraging participation in those communities.  He never slowed down, even as he passed 70.  Be it in business, entertainment, or commentary, Deacon Jones made an impact wherever he went.

One of the Rams all-time greats, his mid-60's run is simply one of the finest stretches in the history of the game – 68 sacks in three seasons is an insane number in any era, much less the pass-depressed '60s.  I don't know if he was the best defensive end of his time – I've always been a fan of Carl Eller and the Purple People Eaters – but he was absolutely the best pure pass rusher, both of his time and possibly ever.  He's in the conversation for best defensive player of all time, and no matter what era he came in, he would have been a huge star. A phenomenal player, and one who will be missed.

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