The Secretary Of Defense. The Case For Deacon Jones As Greatest Ram
Deacon Jones once said, “I’m the best defensive end around. I’d hate to have to play against me!” That kind of confidence is reserved for those that can back it up. Like Muhamad Ali declaring “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as pretty as I am,” Deacon Jones earned the right to be so cocky. Perhaps Jones was taking a page out of Ali’s book as he shaped his own career.
It is well documented that the inspiration for Jones’ signature move, the “head slap,” came directly from him watching Ali defeat Liston in 1965 with quick jabs and amazing footwork. But beyond that, like Ali, Jones used wit, charm, and a whole lotta trash talk to create a bigger than life character, certainly the first at his position.
Before Jones, defensive linemen were seen as the stoic and lumbering monsters of the gridiron, more beast than man. “I first came up, defensive linemen were dull as hell,” Jones told the LA Times in 1980. “Some were great performers, but nobody knew who they were. I set out to change that.”
Not only was Jones ready to change the perception of d-linemen, but he was also poised to change how the defensive end position was played. The biggest differentiator was his speed. His speed was so impressive that it was how he caught the eye of the Rams. Rams scouts were watching film of various running backs for the upcoming draft but took notice of Jones, who was out running the running backs.
At the time Jones was playing in obscurity at Mississippi Vocational School (now Mississippi Valley State). He had been playing at the more prominent South Carolina State but lost his scholarship after being arrested for participating in a peaceful civil rights protest. But with his hard work, speed and quickness, and a bit of cosmic luck, his talent was noticed and Jones was selected by the Rams 168th overall in the 1961 NFL draft. A steal.
Some were great performers, but nobody knew who they were. I set out to change that.
Before we go any further, it is important to point out that Deacon Jones is credited with inventing the term “sack.” Does coining a term make you a better defensive end, no. But, the fact that sacking the quarterback was so synonymous with Deacon Jones that it stuck and became an official stat eight years after he retired says a lot.
Sadly, we can’t simply look at Jones’ QB hits or pressures to determine his dominance at the position. Hell, they weren’t even tracking tackles or forced fumbles. Certainly, there was a technological barrier to these things, but would it have killed them to write down a few observables? For instance, how many offensive linemen whizzed down their own leg when lined up across from Deacon Jones. That would have been more helpful than the defensive stats we are left with.
Luckily, some football nerds retroactively counted up sacks from this era. And it says a lot about Jones’ status as a game wrecking pass rusher. Jones would be third in career sacks behind Bruce Smith and Reggie White, despite playing in fewer total games. In fact, his 173.5 sacks in 191 games mean he averaged .908 sacks per game. According to statmuse.com, J.J. Watt leads the sack era in career sacks per game with .86 That means Watt would need to get 77.5 sacks in the next 79 games to catch Jones’ sack rate. Furthermore, Jones eclipsed 20 sacks in a season three times in his career. Those seasons were 14 game seasons, lest we forget. No player has had more than one +20 sack seasons in a career, even in a 16 game season.
Beyond the statistics, there are a bunch of football experts that used the original analytics, the eye test. Head coach George Allen called him the “greatest defensive end of modern football.” The LA Times called him “the most valuable Ram of all time.”
In his obituary of Jones, Gil Brandt said, “He really changed the profile of what you were looking for in a defensive end. In that way, Deacon Jones was to football what LeBron James has been to basketball.”
Merlin Olsen, another member of the Fearsome Foursome said of his teammate: “There has never been a better football player than Deacon Jones.”
And as many teammates and coaches there are to praise him, there are the horror stories from those who had to block him.
The intimidation started well before the snap of the ball. He would give even veterans the diminutive nickname, “Rookie.” In his three-point sprinter’s stance Jones would snort, bellow and trash talk the man across from him. He once asked Rayfield Wright of the Dallas Cowboys, “if my mother knew I was out on the field.” This caused Wright to freeze as the ball was snapped and Jones blew right through him.
Bob Windsor, a San Francisco 49ers tight end recounted an attempt to block Jones, “He hit me with his head slap about five times before I even knew it. I’m down on my back, and these big feet are clumping over my chest. I look around and see, POW! He smacked John Brodie as hard as you could ever smack him. John got up with blood caked all over his helmet and up his nose. On his way back, Deacon said to me, ‘I’ll do that the next play, too.’”
And those are just stories from single plays, imagine a whole game of getting batted around by a superior athlete. Most would rather be Sonny Liston at the end of the ‘64 fight.
So, for those of you keeping score so far, Jones is credited with inventing a maneuver so devastating it was barred from the field, he revolutionized how defensive ends are perceived and how they play, and he rose from the 14th round to become the de facto and statistical father of quarterback sacks. He was loved by coaches and teammates and feared by opponents.
There is a litany of honors and awards that were earned by Deacon Jones, all of which can be seen on his Wikipedia page. But just like defensive stats from the 60’s even these can’t reveal just how great Deacon Jones was. Instead, go to YouTube and give Jones an eye test of your own. Then you will surely understand what George Allen and Merlin Olsen knew, that Deacon Jones is the greatest defensive end of all time.