You can't say many players from the '40s, '50s and '60s would have dominated today. Be competitive, sure. But dominated? Not many. Deacon Jones, though -- there was a guy who would have been one of the greats whenever he played.
Jones died Monday of natural causes in California. He was one of the best defensive ends in history, playing for the Rams, Chargers and Redskins in the '60s and early '70s before being a first-ballot Hall of Fame pick in 1980. Take 75 seconds here and watch him, particularly when he relentlessly pursues and then sacks the elusive Fran Tarkenton (enjoy the music too).
Jones played the run and pass exceedingly well at 6-foot-5 and 268 pounds. Michael Strahan played the run and pass exceedingly well at 6-5 and 265 (though his weight varied, and he played lighter later in his career). Jones had the speed around the edge of Bruce Smith; he had the relentlessness of Jared Allen. He had the total package -- maybe slightly shy with the bullrush -- of Reggie White.
"I've seen the films,'' said Strahan in mid-career. "This guy was the whole package. He made defensive end a glamour position."
In fact, he was Deion before there was Deion. Jones thought pass rushing was the kind of disruptive factor in pro football that got far too little attention and credit. Deion Sanders thought shutting down half of the deep field to the pass was a huge advantage in the modern passing game of the early '90s, and he made cornerback a glamour position. Pass rusher had to wait a few years, probably until Lawrence Taylor dominated in the '80s, before Jones' fervor about the role really hit the game. That's when the term "sack'' -- which Jones invented, to spotlight tackling the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage, like the barbarians "sacking'' a town -- came into prominence. The NFL began using it as a stat.
Too bad Jones was 20 years too late. A football historian, John Turney, went back and studied the play-by-play from every game in Jones' career, to determine how many sacks he actually had. And though it can be slightly inflated (because if a quarterback tucked the ball and was running on a designed rushing play, yet tackled behind the line, it would still count as a sack in Turney's count), there's no question Jones' first 10 years with the Rams were as impressive as any decade of rushing the quarterback -- including LT's best 10 years.
Beginning in 1961, Jones had eight, 12, 20, 22, 19, 18, 26, 24, 15 and 12 tackles of quarterbacks behind the line, according to Turney. The NFL played 12 games in 1961, and 14 in each of the other nine seasons.
George Allen called him the best defensive end ever. Our Paul Zimmerman, writing in 1999, called him the best defensive end of the century.
GALLERY: SI's rare photos of Deacon Jones
What stats didn't show was Jones' leadership and strength of personality. He grew up in Florida, was schooled in South Carolina and was a forceful and loud opponent of segregation. When he got into the Hall of Fame, he became a leader there, too. He'd address the incoming Hall inductees each year. "You're joining a team you can't be cut from or traded from now, and you can't quit it,'' Jones would say each year to the new class. "You need to come to Canton every year and make sure you make all of the people in here part of your family.''
He used to say his address was 2121 George Halas Drive Northwest. That's the Hall of Fame's address in Canton, Ohio.
Fitting he wanted to live in the Hall. As a player, he helped define the kind of greatness that belongs in any sport's Hall of Fame.
His last words of his 1980 enshrinement speech: "The secretary of defense would like to leave you with this: Every man is free to rise as far as he is able and willing, but it is only the degree to which he thinks and believes that determines the degree to which he will rise.''
Deacon Jones, gone too soon at 74.
Now for your email:
ON THE ZAK GILBERT FIRING. "I read your column faithfully every week and I appreciate your insights. I, however, think you are looking at the Zak Gilbert firing from only one side. As a former journalist who has now been in PR for almost 18 years, I can maybe see why the Raiders did what they did. The job of a PR man is not to just be the media's best friend, but to promote the organization's message. In the case of the story on Al Davis, if Trotter was intent on exposing the poor decisions that Al Davis made in his final years, I doubt talking to the current owner, who is the former owner's son, is going to change that so maybe Gilbert should have advised Mark Davis not to comment.
In regards to him getting you an interview with Charles Woodson, if the organization's message was one of a homecoming, feel-good story (and let's face it, Oakland hasn't had many of those in recent years), then he probably should have found out for himself what Woodson was going to say to you before he set up the interview. Obviously, all PR people want to build relationships with the media because it is a people business, but they don't work for the media and the media need to respect that.''
-- Keith T., Greensboro, N.C.
My problems with your well-reasoned argument about the firing of Gilbert (and you are not alone in defending Mark Davis):
1. You need to read the story Jim Trotter wrote. You say, "if Trotter was intent on exposing the poor decisions that Al Davis made in his final years,'' as if to say that's the entire reason for the story. It wasn't. The story was to explain how much of a hole the Raiders are in, and how Reggie McKenzie is trying to get them out of that hole. A major part of the story is how the Raiders got there.
2. If you're the CEO of a sports team, and the biggest sports magazine in the country has been sniffing around your team for one year, and is writing a long story on the state of it, are you honestly telling me you would advise your boss to not speak to the reporter writing the story? If you did, and if the story came out with critical tales about the team that you advised your boss not to address, and if I'm your boss, I can tell you I'd be a lot more inclined to fire you than if you'd told me to talk to the reporter.
3. What, exactly, are the advantages to not talking to Trotter?
4. What everyone is missing about the story is this: The Raiders were bordering on a closed society before Reggie McKenzie hired Gilbert. Gilbert exposed lots of good over the last 15 months. As with the story I wrote on Charles Woodson, he wanted to make Woodson available because I'd written I had no idea why a guy would pick the Raiders over the Broncos in free agency. What's wrong with that -- even if Woodson says he did it largely because of the guaranteed money in the Oakland offer? Isn't that proving that Oakland wants to win and will extend itself to try to do so? The truth with Woodson didn't hurt anyone. In fact, I believe it showed how much the team is trying to win and rebuild its image.
MORE GILBERT. "With all due respect, I believe your article points to the real reason the media is so upset about the firing of Zak Gilbert. He was providing access to the team that wasn't had before. I understand he was well respected, but seriously, who's to say that 'team sources' didn't reveal the full story in regards to his termination? It seems the media was just too eager to proclaim 'Same old Raiders' without getting any more details.''
-- Hiliary, Portland, Ore.
Hmmm. Gilbert is told to stay away from the complex the day the story surfaces. Then he is fired. Club employees who have relationships with beat writers, privately or publicly, haven't refuted that the story was the major reason he got fired. You're giving the team too much of the benefit of the doubt that some other nefarious reason was in play here. It wasn't.
I DON'T SEE IT THE SAME WAY. "Peter, I appreciated your discussion of Troy Vincent and mental health. One thing puzzled me, though -- are you surprised that Vincent has talked openly about the league being concerned about and reaching out to Titus Young? Like all players, Young is an employee of the league, and it seems like Vincent broke several laws by talking about an employee's mental health. If I did that with one of my employees, I'd be sued in a New York minute. I'd be interested in your thoughts.''
-- Bob Tansey, Boston
I don't understand why it would be a problem if, asked by multiple outlets why the league did nothing apparently to help a troubled player, the league says it tried to help. The difference between your employee and Titus Young is that Young is in the public eye in a very big way; your employee isn't. I understand the league shouldn't be issuing daily updates on Young's mental health, but I don't see the problem with saying, "We tried."
YOU'RE RIGHT, WITH AN ASTERISK. "Is there really something wrong with Cary Williams wanting to stay home with his family instead of showing up for "voluntary" workouts? The season is long enough. Let him enjoy time with his family.''
-- John, Gladstone, Mich.
Nothing wrong at all. He's allowed. But here's the deal: The NFLPA basically cut one month off the offseason work expectations of players in 2011. There's an implicit understanding -- though not a job requirement -- that players should be present for the offseason work. I know if I were a new player to a team that paid me a lot of money, I'd be there unless there were some great reason not to be. You have the ability to schedule your wedding when you want. Why do it in the middle of the time you're supposed to be learning a new defense with a new team?
ON THE DEMISE OF PRO FOOTBALL WEEKLY. "I'm a long-time reader and have enjoyed your insight over the last couple years. Your note on PFW piqued my interest in particular this past week. It points to a larger issue in modern media: the ratio between superficial, sensationalist snippets versus in-depth, detailed analysis. I know there is no specific answer out there, so at the very least I hope your new website you're helping to develop can help fill the gap. Best of luck!''
-- Jim, LaMesa, Calif.
Thanks, Jim. We'll try. I have told our new writers: Let's be different. Or at least let's try new things. Whatever we do, I know we have to be analytical. I do think, however, PFW was analytical too, and not only dropping tidbits of what its writers were hearing.