Deacon Jones redirected football, and ripples remain in today’s NFL

08/23/2014 1:00 PM

08/23/2014 6:48 PM

Contrary to popular belief, pioneering defensive end Deacon Jones may not have concocted the term “quarterback sack.” Former NFL publicist Jim Kensil may first have coined it in 1963.

But back then, when passing was more crude exception than prevailing trend, the play still was categorized more as a trifle than a staple. They called it “dumping the passer” or, ho-hum, the “quarterback tackle.” The sack didn’t become an official individual statistic until 1982.

And there’s no doubt that the rampaging Jones defined and infused life into the concept.

In the process, a man who gave himself the nickname Deacon to distinguish himself from other fellows named David Jones became a beacon toward the future.

Most literally in terms of his patented head-slap, his handprints were all over thrilling possibilities and devastating issues that came to characterize the game and dominate the landscape even now.

Before there was Lawrence Taylor and Bruce Smith and Reggie White and Michael Strahan and Derrick Thomas and goofy sack dances, there was Jones.

In a statement upon Jones’ death in 2013, Strahan said Jones “made the position glamorous, which was hard to do.”

Indeed: Long liberated from the anonymous trenches, defensive ends are the second-highest-paid players behind quarterbacks, based on an average of the 10 best-paid at each position ($20.9 million annually to $17.1 million), according to a 2013 Business Insider report.

For that, his descendants can thank Jones, whose name is on the award annually given to the league leader in sacks — a player that’s now as apt to be a linebacker as a defensive end.

“Defense was a passive thing in those days. You waited at the line of scrimmage or slid along the length of it, waiting for the ballcarrier to crash into you like a ship hitting the rocks,” the illustrious Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times once wrote, later adding, “The ‘Seven Blocks of Granite’ were the kind of thing they used to call successful defenders.

“Deacon Jones was nobody’s block of granite. He was on the move.”

***

As a result, so were defenses, triggering more cycles and counter-cycles.

In the latest incarnation, the ever-evolving offensive element of the game is predicated on finesse and timing and exotic passing schemes.

In 2013, according to ProFootballReference.com, NFL teams combined to pass 80.5 times a game — 25 to 30 more times per game than into the 1970s.

So attacking and disrupting is the crux of the matter for defenses that are infinitely more sophisticated today.

“That’s the name of the game now, isn’t it?” said former Chiefs star quarterback Len Dawson. “Sack the quarterback.”

Not that defenses didn’t always love to do that.

Dawson was sacked who-knows-how-many times in his 18-year pro career … but 167 times in seven seasons after the sack became used as a team statistic in 1969.

To say nothing of all the times he was hit after throwing the ball.

But he never had a surgery during his career and never suffered a concussion … as far as he knows.

“Learn to give with it; just go down,” he said. “Don’t fight it. To live to play another play was what my theory was.”

That was easier said than done for some.

Consider the iconic 1964 photo of New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle, on his knees and helmetless with blood oozing from his head.

Tittle had been clobbered so hard by Pittsburgh defensive end John Baker that he had his helmet blown off and suffered a concussion and cracked sternum.

Some years later, Baker ran for sheriff in Wake County, N.C. He used that photo as part of a campaign touting, “If you don’t obey the law, this is what Big John will do to you.” He won and held the position for 24 years.

***

Maybe such violence isn’t as publicly glamorized or condoned anymore. But it’s still a gladiatorial part of the game that the public accepts, and in some ways embraces, as the league itself grapples with it.

As the NFL stands at a crossroads with the consequences of violence in the sport, the ramifications of the sack go beyond just the momentum-changing impact it might make on any one game.

Last year, the Frontline documentary “League Of Denial,” based on a book of the same name, flushed the NFL’s concussion crisis out of the cobwebs into daylight.

Meanwhile, Excelsior Springs native Gregg Williams was amid a year-long suspension for instituting a bounty system rewarding injuries to opponents, including quarterbacks, when he was defensive coordinator for New Orleans.

Williams is back in football now as defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams.

In the wake of that report, the Orlando Sentinel quoted former Minnesota defensive tackle Brad Culpepper as saying defensive line coach John Teerlinck had drilled players on how to injure opposing quarterbacks.

***

Where all this is going in the game is fuzzy, but where it’s coming from is becoming more clear through the foggy minds of former players.

Several thousand, including more than 100 former Chiefs, are part of a lawsuit against the NFL alleging that the league long concealed what it knew about the dangers of repeated hits to the head.

Part of this, too, is the legacy of Jones, who played within the rules … but in such a furious way that the rules ultimately were changed.

Jones was a charismatic presence, prone to hyberbole. But it’s not clear to what degree he was joking when he used to explain what “sack” meant to him.

To him, it was like “putting all the offensive players in one bag and taking a baseball bat and beating on the bag,” he once told The Star.

In fact, the wrath of his rush wasn’t limited to quarterbacks.

Former Cleveland offensive tackle Doug Dieken last year told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer that being hit by a Jones slap was “like Quasimodo ringing the bell” in ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame.’ ”

“Every time he hit you — bonnnnnngg — you could feel it,” said Dieken, who is worried about memory loss, among other issues.

The head-slap at last was ruled illegal in 1977 after Claude Humphrey, who played for Atlanta and Philadelphia, had escalated it all the more.

“Deacon was the guy who invented it; Claude Humphrey was the guy who got it outlawed,” said former Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil, an assistant with the Rams during Jones’ heyday and Humphrey’s coach in Philadelphia. “Claude taped up his left arm, and it became like a baseball bat.”

***

More changes favoring offense, and quarterbacks, accompanied and followed.

Offensive linemen were given much more liberty to use their hands; receivers couldn’t be touched past five yards downfield. Defenders now can be penalized for going after a quarterback’s knees or head, or slamming him after he throws.

Outside the pocket, quarterbacks can intentionally throw the ball away without penalty.

“In the old days, you used to knock him (the quarterback) down after he threw the ball,” Vermeil said. “There wasn’t worrying about timing when you hit him. You hit him any time.

“Today, they’re so protected that I think it takes a little edge off the last step or two of a defensive lineman. … No sense in sacking him if (you’re) going to get penalized 15 yards.”

In fact, while sacks are up because there are so many more passes, the percentage of them is notably fewer than 50 years ago.

According to ProFootballReference.com, 10 percent of NFL passes attempted in 1964 ended in sacks. (Unless you were playing the Los Angeles Rams, featuring Jones and his “Fearsome Foursome” brethren: 15 percent of their opponents’ pass attempts ended in sacks.)

For all the fuss and glory associated with the sack today, last season they occurred on just 6.7 percent of NFL passes.

So some of the obsession with the place of the sack now is merely a matter of perception. And Vermeil wonders if it’s all healthy to the defense.

“If you sack them, they can’t throw an interception, OK? In the old days, you used to say, ‘Get pressure on him but let him throw it. He’s going to throw it to us,’ ” he said. “And as the sack became more popular, defensive ends in general thought about rushing the passer more than they did playing the defense.”

Especially when it started becoming a key stat in contract negotiations.

“You have to be careful of allowing the sack to be magnified in importance in a defensive lineman’s mind,” Vermeil said, “so he isn’t selfishly going off on his own to try to make more money sacking the quarterback.”

***

All of these points are thought-provoking ripples from the influence of Jones, whose place in the game is assured even if his vital statistics are absent.

By later research, he is believed to have had 173 1/2 sacks from 1961-74 (when the NFL played 14 games). That would make him third on the career list to Bruce Smith’s 200 and Reggie White’s 198.

But Jones is a phantom on the official ledger because the individual stat wasn’t kept when he played.

He would later complain that it was as if he never existed.

The evidence suggests otherwise, animating a term whether he created it or not … and in several ways redirecting the course of the sport.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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