Deacon Jones: The trailblazer who changed the way the game was played

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

To a degree, David "Deacon" Jones' legacy is trapped in game highlights, filmy sack totals, and a long history of soundbites. And on the event of his passing, I think more than ever how unfortunate it is that there wasn't NFL Game Rewind, readily available All-22 tape available to the public, and ceaseless dissemination of every single game during Jones' era -- he played with the Los Angeles Rams, San Diego Chargers, and Washington Redskins from 1961 through 1974, when the NFL was still groping for an identity. Jones helped to forge that identity, but his real legacy lives on in the men who saw him play, and know just how important he was to the game.

Jones is credited, per the Rams' media guide, with 173.5 career sacks. But since sack totals weren't officially kept by the league until 1982, one doesn't really know how many he had. Like Satchel Paige's win totals, Deacon Jones' sack totals reflect a mixture of reality and legend.

If you really want to get a sense of how much Jones revolutionized the way defense is played, listen to the men who saw him, and are qualified to speak on the subject.

"Deacon was the first prototypical outside speed-power rusher in the history of the league," Bill Parcells told Jim Corbett of USA Today on Tuesday. "He was formidable at what he did, could do things physically to you. And then, he also could out-maneuver you with speed. He was the first of those dynamic pass rushers everybody in the league is looking for now.''

Parcells, who basically invented the modern pass-rushing outside linebacker in 1981 when he was the New York Giants' defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, and the G-Men selected Lawrence Taylor in the first round of that draft, was able to easily tie Jones' ascent through the 1960s as the advent of the 4-3 defensive end as a dominant force. When Jones started to make a ripple, pro football was less than a decade out from Tom Landry's invention of the modern four-man front concept, and Jones used his edge speed and pure strength -- uncommon to this day for his 6-foot-5, 275-pound frame -- to bring edge pressure on a play-to-play basis as a defensive ideal.

"The Rams were among the very first teams that tried to put power inside to push from the interior and speed on the corner of the pass rush,'' Parcells said of that "Fearsome Foursome" line. "They definitely had a philosophy in place in that regard. I can recall people talking about how the Rams had such a dynamic rush by virtue of [Rams defensive tackles] Merlin Olsen, Rosey Grier, [defensive ends] Lamar Lundy and Deacon being outside. That was a pretty formidable outfit.''

Formidable indeed, especially in the way that front set the paradigm for future defensive fronts. If you want to see the skeleton for everything from the Purple People Eaters, to the Doomsday Defense, to the Sack Exchange, to the Cover- and Tampa-2, you need look no further than the Rams of the 1960s.

"If you start thinking back to the Dallas Cowboys with "Too Tall'' Jones, Harvey Martin and Bob Lilly inside, they tried to emulate that particular blueprint,'' Parcells concluded. "And the Vikings were the same way, with Carl Eller and Jim Marshall and then power inside, copying the Rams blueprint, too.''

Dick Vermeil, who became the first special teams coach in NFL history with the Rams in 1969, had a front-row seat to Jones' greatness, and told the NFL Network that when you adjust for era and specific techniques, it's hard to rate anyone else as the greatest of all time.

“In those days, the offensive linemen couldn’t use the hands like they do today," Vermeil said. "So, Deacon with his head slap and all of those kinds of things could get to their body and the side of their body and the side of their head much quicker. It was legal then; you can’t do that today, but the offensive linemen are using their hands stretching and keeping you away. Even with that, I would believe he would have to be considered the number one pass rusher of all time. He was a relentless pass rusher and a relentless run defender when the ball went away from him.”

Deacon Jones was a quote machine and an entertainer, but it should never be forgotten that he was also one of the most important players the game has ever seen. Fans should know his name, and anyone who's ever tried to mess up a quarterback's day should be familiar with his work on a more comprehensive level.

No matter who they are, they have Deacon Jones to thank for their places in the NFL.