It is franchise-tag deadline day in the NFL, so thoughts obviously turn to Walter Jones.
Say what? Just because the Seahawks decided against using this year’s tag on one of their players scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next Tuesday doesn’t make this a meaningless Monday. Not with the way Jones juggled and juked the system from 2002-04.
The nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle, and a slam-dunk first-ballot Hall of Famer when he becomes eligible in 2015, is one of only two players in league history to be tagged three consecutive seasons. Orlando Pace, a seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle for the St. Louis Rams, is the other (2003-05).
Jones, who played his final game in 2008 because of a knee condition that eventually forced him to retire during the 2010 offseason, could be the poster player for the franchise tag. Heck, Jones manipulated the system so well they could name the designation after him. You know, rather than getting the franchise tag a player would be given the Big Walt designation.
That, of course, is saying a lot. But then Jones always let his overpowering actions speak for him, so let’s step into the not-so-way-back machine and examine just how Jones became synonymous with the franchise tag:
|A PRICY GAME OF TAG|
Today is the deadline for NFL teams to use the franchise tag on players, and it’s a pricy move as the following tag totals that were released on Friday indicate:
2002 – Jones, a first-round draft choice in 1997, was coming off his second consecutive Pro Bowl berth and first All-Pro selection. The club wanted to sign him to a long-term deal, but desire never became a done deal. Jones did not report and sign his franchise tender until mid-September – after the Seahawks had opened the season with losses to the Raiders in Oakland and Arizona Cardinals in the first regular-season game played at the Seahawks’ new stadium.
And not before his agent, Roosevelt Barnes, suggested a televised debate with then-senior vice president Mike Reinfeldt so the media could “decide who gets voted off the island,” as Barnes put it.
Once Jones finally ended his 7½-week no-show by reporting and signing the tender, the club was given a two-week roster exemption it didn’t use. Jones stepped back in at left tackle for the Week 3 game against the New York Giants at Giants Stadium.
“Now that Walter is here, and has signed the tender, we can work on getting a long-term deal done – just as we’ve been saying we would all allow,” Mike Holmgren said on that September day when Walter Jones finally came to play. Holmgren was the club’s general manager then, as well as head coach.
The long-term deal never got done that season, but Jones was voted to his third consecutive Pro Bowl.
2003 – Another training camp in Cheney without Walter Jones, after the club tagged him again in February – this time at a one-season cost of $5.904 million, up from the $4.92 million price tag of playing tag the previous offseason.
But this year, Jones showed up the Tuesday before the regular-season opener. The club got another two-week roster exemption that wasn’t used – or needed – as Jones played in all 16 games and was voted to a fourth consecutive Pro Bowl.
How had Jones stayed in shape while away? That’s when he reintroduced everyone to his secret training method that he learned at Aliceville (Ala.) High School.
“We used to push trucks and stuff,” Jones said. “I knew that would help me with the bag drills that coach (Tom) Lovat does. Just doing those kinds of things. I just went back to what got me here. Hopefully, that will help me in the long run.”
It wasn’t total déjà vu, however. In high school, Jones and the other linemen would push their coach’s Ford pickup. That summer, Jones was pushing around his Cadillac Escalade.
2004 – Would the third time be the charm? Not exactly. Jones became the last to sign of the 10 players who had been given the franchise tag. But he still got it done in time to again play in all 16 regular-season games.
After Jones put pen to the $7.084 million tender, Holmgren offered, “Walter is an exceptional player, there’s no question about that. He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen. But does a player need a little work prior to the first game to be at his best? I think they do. Logic tells me they do. So can an exceptional player play at a pretty high level? Yeah. Will he be as good as he would be in Game 10? We’ll see.”
What everyone saw was a player capable of defying logic. Jones’ resume that season included a fifth consecutive Pro Bowl and his second All-Pro selection, as Shaun Alexander rushed for 1,696 yards to lead the NFC and the team won the first of what would become four consecutive NFC West titles.
Then, the strangest thing happened.
In February 2005, Jones signed the multiyear contract the club had been trying to coax him to accept – seven years, $52.5 million. The move allowed the club to use the franchise tag on Alexander, who that season would become the only player in franchise history to be voted league MVP after leading the NFL in rushing (1,880 yards) and setting a then-league record by scoring 28 touchdowns during the Seahawks’ run to the Super Bowl.
And Jones? Did the big deal lead to a big head or a lackadaisical attitude? Hardly. Nineteen of Alexander’s 27 rushing touchdowns came while running to the left side behind Jones and Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson. Jones was voted to a sixth consecutive Pro Bowl and named All-Pro for a third time.
Finally, both sides had the win-win situation that Holmgren and Reinfeldt had been looking for – longing for. Before being forced to walk away, Jones had been voted to the Pro Bowl in 2006, 2007 and 2008 and named first team All-Pro in 2007 and second team in 2006 and 2008.
The Seahawks have used the franchise tag six other times – in 1996 on strong safety Robert Blackmon; in 2000 on wide receiver Joey Galloway, who was then traded to the Dallas Cowboys for two first-round draft choices; in 2007 on kicker Josh Brown; in 2008 on Pro Bowl cornerback
But none of those moves, or even the sum of those moves, can compare to the drama that played out during those three seasons when Walter Jones was the obvious winner in this game of tag.