Born for This: An Interview with Walter Jones

Walter Jones learned, at a very young age, that he had a gift. So often he found himself crouched on the football field, one hand in the dirt, flanked by the guard, eyes boring into his opponent’s. It’s fitting that a man so gentle and kind excelled at protecting his team’s most vulnerable and valuable asset; Jones loved playing left tackle and playing left tackle loved him. “I learned at a very young age that offensive line was my expertise,” says the Seattle Seahawks legend. “I was pretty good at it.” Who better to examine modern offensive line play than one of the pretty goods greats?

Athleticism was Jones’ best friend at left tackle. He likens the demands of the position to those of playing power forward in basketball: length, quickness in limited space, excellent change of direction, and great knee bend are required to perform at the highest level.

Howard Mudd, Jones’ first offensive line coach in Seattle, gave the young tackle an opportunity to fully utilize his physical ability. While many coaches instinctively plug players into a predetermined role, Mudd allowed his young protégé to play more naturally than most, communicating that it was “okay to do that because you can do it.” Jones still loves to watch linemen who play with the violence and athleticism he personified, such as Seattle’s Duane Brown, Indianapolis’ Quenton Nelson, and Philadelphia’s Jason Peters.

But elite talent means nothing without elite discipline and work ethic. Jones had both, and it resulted in a Hall of Fame career. The statistics that get thrown around his name are certifiably insane: in 13 seasons, Jones started all 180 games he played, allowing only 23 sacks, and drawing only 9 holding penalties.

When asked about offensive holding in the modern NFL, Jones responds with a quick chuckle and then an insistence on the importance of discipline. “A lot of linemen are taught at a young age that refs won’t call [holding] if your hands are inside,” he asserts. “Yeah, they’re going to call it if the guy’s away from you and you’re still trying to hold on. Once a guy starts going away from you, you run your feet so now you can stay with [him] — most of the time they’re not going to call that.”

On top of a flag frenzy, the NFL finds itself experiencing a historic dearth of quality offensive linemen. The crux of the issue can be found in the lower echelons of football, according to Jones. College teams predominantly run spread offenses that fail to stress translatable line fundamentals, the most damning of which is the increased use of a two-point stance rather than three. In the former, linemen are set higher and can survey the field and game more effectively, but relinquish explosion when coming off the ball in the run game. Jones’ coaches only allowed him to utilize a two-point stance in third-and-longs and other obvious passing situations. A three-point stance preserves this power but sacrifices awareness and comfort.

In a game of subterfuge, it only makes sense that lining up similarly before every snap lends to effectiveness. “If you want to be elite, you’ve got to be able to do both,” explains Jones. “Pass protect in a three-point stance so you don’t want to tip nothing off to the defense.”

But moving from a pass-happy college scheme to one that requires a player to learn an entirely new technique can be immensely difficult. To combat this, NFL linemen switch between two- and three-point stances throughout games. This strategy of mixing and matching can confuse opponents’ diagnoses of play calls and allows linemen to utilize what they already know while easing into a new technique.

Superior coaching optimizes effectiveness and deception while squeezing every bit of value out of rookie contracts. Since Seattle’s current regime arrived in 2010, the team has prioritized offensive line prospects that test exceptionally well in the broad jump, a drill indicating a player’s ability to generate explosiveness in the run game from a two-point stance. This logic falls in line with Jones’ sentiment, since setting in a three-point stance on every snap has been rendered largely unsustainable in the modern NFL. Play-calling is built on deception and if standardization is not feasible, this is the best option available.

Jones continues to expound on the woeful technique so rampant among young linemen after the snap: “In high school and college, you’re knocking guys off the ball. But in the pros, it’s all about leverage. The best offensive linemen are the ones that can get up under shoulder pads and hold their ground and stay low.” The difficulty lies in maintaining this leverage while also keeping your hands inside the defender’s frame and your feet sound. Shoddy technique will destroy structure, bringing everything full circle and back to allowing sacks and drawing flags. For linemen who don’t possess the necessary length, reaching is prevalent and leads to mistakes.

Jones possessed the necessary length. Fittingly, he almost never made mistakes.

Jones received an early start at positional specialization, having understood that his future in football laid at left tackle. But he admits younger players should split time at multiple spots. “Guys are choosing one position in high school,” he says. “I think you should be able to play both sides so you can learn the game.” He believes that football comes easier to those who understand both offense and defense. Jones theorizes that he could’ve made a mean defensive tackle in the NFL had he chosen a different path. He pushes through laughter and deems a personal goal of eight to nine sacks per year as “a pretty good number.” It’s appropriate he would base this hypothetical career on defenders whose games he respected the most, the interior disruptors, complete linemen prowling at 3-technique, always prepared to single-handedly wreck gameplans — Cortez Kennedy and Warren Sapp are the ones he names when asked.

In the end though, Jones recommends the offensive line for those choosing between that and rushing the passer. He understands the difficulty of selling 16-year-olds on a position that devastates your body and grants you little recognition in the process. “That’s a hard pitch,” he says. “People want to be patted on the back. People want the fame. They want to be in front of the cameras. You have to love the game for you to be opening up the hole for the running back and protecting the quarterback.”

If you do indeed love the game, there is nothing sweeter.

Jones thinks back to the satisfaction of executing one of Seattle’s bread-and-butter plays on a big 4th and 1, of imposing his will on the sorry sap lined up across from him — he names 93 Blast and 93 G-Lead right away. Jones blocks down while the guard pulls, giving the running back an opportunity to find space. Running to the left — of course they’re running to the left — the cutback lane will likely materialize behind the right guard. Nevertheless, following Big Walt is a sure thing, a sure conversion.

“The gratification of your running back running over 100 yards and your quarterback not getting sacked — that felt good to me.” Jones was born to play on the offensive line, but for the majority of others, that choice doesn’t come as naturally. He doesn’t mince words in his final pitch to those on the fence: “If you go out there and dominate at offensive line, people are going to recognize you.”

In the time that Jones and I speak, he makes it abundantly clear that he doesn’t study football at nearly the level he used to. The local legend watches the game today not from an analytical perspective, but from that of a fan. His allegiance to the Pacific Northwest has proven to be more than just monetary — he loves the city of Seattle dearly and watches the Seahawks regularly.

Jones is confident about the team’s chances in 2019, even if their offensive line has struggled mightily for much of seven weeks. He posits that the issues in Seattle’s pass protection stem from a ground attack experiencing regression from the previous year’s dominance. “This team is all about run, run, run, then you throw the pass,” he says before clarifying. “I’m not saying Russell [Wilson] can’t throw the ball. But this offensive line is built on running the football.” Watching a group with an average weight of almost 320 pounds, it’s hard to disagree. Whether that is a sound strategy with an MVP-caliber quarterback is a different conversation altogether.

Jones also believes the first portion of the season to be a dress rehearsal of sorts, a time to feel things out and determine how opposing teams will scheme against you — this is especially true of Pete Carroll teams, which are notorious for starting seasons sluggishly and finishing with hutzpah. The following games will be about making adjustments. “I think you’ll see a different type of offense and see that the ball is starting to move,” he says of the coming weeks, optimism and realism smoothly intertwining.

No matter what happens, though, Jones will remain Seattle’s beacon of reliability: a loyal fan and vital alumnus of the franchise. The team and community continue to rely on him, and he meets the challenge. “You just have to find what you really want to do to give back to this game and what you want to be a part of,” he states simply.

From public appearances to enthusiastic social media engagement, and through proud and vocal regional citizenship, Walter Jones is everywhere. His intentional visibility gives us insight into a man whose talents blended perfectly with temperament and work ethic, resulting in not just a Hall of Fame football player, but one of Seattle’s finest human beings.

Visuals by William Cornell