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What Can Go Wrong: Walter Jones

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Good news can breed dread. Let’s run with that. This is the first in a series of articles exploring what can go wrong for Seattle in 2008.

Walter Jones Decline/Injury Decline/IR

Walter Jones turned 34 a week after Seattle’s season ended. He is, by any measure, one of the greatest left tackles to ever play football. Even in his football dotage, he’s one of the most valuable and least replaceable players on Seattle’s roster. It’s difficult to project a player as unique as Jones. Many great players enjoy a respectable late career plateau after declining from their peak. Others do not. Others suffer a performance altering injury and never recover. In an attempt to create an analog to Jones, I started at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. How did other legendary offensive tackles perform late in their careers? When did the end come and in what form?

Anthony Munoz

Munoz played 13 seasons, missing only 3 games. Munoz retired, signed with the Bucs, was injured in the preseason and then retired again. We can be sure that Jones will not be injured in the preseason. Munoz represents a positive outlook for Jones’ future. Munoz stayed in top condition throughout his career and stayed a top tackle until retiring. The two compare in total contributions, but Munoz was the better athlete and enjoyed better overall health than Jones.

Jackie Slater

Played an astounding 20 seasons, retiring at 41. Should I put a an exclamation point there? “!” There, there it is. Slater wasn’t the same player by then, but he stands as another point of evidence that offensive tackles defy traditional age curves.

Gary Zimmerman

Zimmerman’s career looks deceptively short thanks to a two year stint in the USFL. Zim played just 12 seasons in the NFL, but was 37 when he retired. His career ended after mounting shoulder injuries. Given his age, build, play and shoulder injuries, Zimmerman is another player that represents a positive outlook on Jones remaining career. In 1997, Zim’s final season, the Denver Broncos had the best offense in football (17.3% DVOA) and won the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, the following season the team would repeat and their offense was even better (28.0%).

It’s a very select group, but longevity and a graceful decline are standard. Willie Roaf merits as a future Hall of Famer and his late years were likewise. Jonathan Ogden is thought to have slowed a bit, but his conditioning and will were long in question.

The end is near for Jones, but there’s little reason to think he’s any more likely to be injured this coming season than he was in 2006 or 2007. 34 sounds ancient in the sports world. It sounds especially ancient for football. But offensive tackles do not fit the standard aging curve. Concerns about Jones inability to take a pain killer stronger than Tylenol are no more valid today than they were last year or the year before. Jones has prospered despite that handicap. It is a handicap, no doubt, but we must conclude sometime in the last 12 seasons Jones has adapted. He’s involuntarily missed but two games throughout his career. Discovery, it’s one of the top 10 reasons I write this site. I think I just discovered Seattle won’t need a new left tackle until 2011.