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Big Walt still has it after all these years
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This is Walter Jones’ 13th summer – if not training camp – with the Seahawks.
As hard as that might be to believe, the specks of gray in his temples indicate that it is indeed true. If not that, then there’s the unabashed reverence his teammates lavish upon the club’s nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle.
But Jones, a first-round draft choice in 1997, isn’t just the Seahawks’ figurehead elder statesman. He still looms exceptionally large in the team’s plans as it transitions into the Jim Mora era.
“He’s gotten a little bit older, but to me he’s still the best left tackle in he league,” said Sean Locklear, the team’s right tackle who was just getting his driver’s license when Jones entered the league – and the Seahawks’ starting lineup.
“Walt can still get it done.”
The Seahawks aren’t just counting on that; they’re planning on it – despite Jones missing the final four games last season because he needed microfracture surgery on his left knee and then sitting out all the spring minicamps and OTA sessions while completing his rehab.
Part of that plan is to work Jones back into the lineup slowly during training camp. Jones was limited during Friday afternoon’s first practice and was held out Saturday during the first round of two-a-days.
Even that sounds strange, because “Jones” and “training camp” haven’t always been synonymous.
As a rookie, he didn’t report to camp until the week of the third preseason game – only to start a couple days later against the San Francisco 49ers and pitch a shutout against Chris Doleman.
From 2002-04, when Jones was given the franchise tag three consecutive years, he didn’t report at all, skipped training camp completely before signing his tender – only to be voted to the Pro Bowl in each season.
All that only added to Jones’ mystique, and has left his current teammates to shrug off the fact that he is practicing on a limited basis.
“The way I look at it, we need Walt in September when the season starts,” Locklear said. “He’s proven he can play. He’s come in on a Wednesday and played on Sunday.”
But things are a bit different this summer. Jones turned 35 in January, when he also lost his autopilot advantage because the Seahawks have installed a new zone-blocking scheme.
“I think it puts a little bit of extra burden on Walt mentally to have to pay attention in meetings and be out for the walkthroughs and things like that,” Mora said. “But he’s certainly a guy that can handle that.”
And then some. We are talking about a player who has performed at the highest level – a Hall of Fame level – for all but a handful of snaps since being the sixth pick overall in that draft so long ago.
Opponents haven’t been able to throw much at Jones that he couldn’t handle with those running back-quick feet and NBA power-forward arms. Now, he has the experience that comes with playing in the league as long as he has.
As Locklear put it, “Walt might not be as nifty as he used to be, but he still gets the job done.”
Jones just flashed that no-worries smile of his when told of Locklear’s assessment.
“I’m a much smarter player now,” Jones said when asked to compare the rookie Walter Jones to the 13th-season Walter Jones.
“Like they say, you’re just a ‘wily vet.’ It’s just knowing what’s going on out there. I’ve seen everything that a guy can give you, so it’s just a matter of waiting on that stuff and being able to handle it.”
Combine the acquired knowledge with the natural skills and it creates, well, a player who could go down as the best to ever play his position.
Even with that said, it’s one thing to occasionally play against Jones, but something completely different to be around him every day.
“It’s really fun to be on the same side as him,” said Mora, who was the Atlanta Falcons coach for three seasons (2004-06) before coming to the Seahawks and an assistant with 49ers when Jones broke into the league.
“You know, you watch a guy like Walt – who’s been in the league as long as he has, and is as accomplished as he is – and you wonder if they’re going to come out here and work hard or just kind of rest on their laurels. Walt’s a guy that just puts everything into it, every day.”
In his first two years with the Seahawks, Mora’s primary focus in practice was coaching the defensive backs. Now, as head coach, he is getting a closer look at what allows Walter Jones to be Walter Jones.
“I’m very impressed with his level of concentration and his work ethic,” Mora said.
So is Cory Redding, a defensive lineman who was obtained in a March trade with the Detroit Lions. He’s also getting a chance to look at Jones from both sides now.
“Walter is just such an athlete to be that big,” Redding said. “He has great feet. He’s strong. When he puts his hands on you, you aren’t getting them off. And he’s just been in the game long enough that he knows everything that coming at him. So he’s very patient.”
If not real talkative.
“Walt is real cool, calm and collected,” Redding said. “He’s going to walk quietly and carry a big stick – and beat you over the head with it.”
For Jones, beating opponents to the punch has become about seeing the total picture.
“You just have to be more aware of stuff – see the whole field,” he said. “That makes the game a lot easier.”
If not as easy as Jones often makes it look.
As club president Tim Ruskell put it, “Half a Walter Jones is still one of the better offensive tackles in the game.” Read