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Friday, October 31, 2008
OLD SCHOOL


Would Deacon have "cuffed" Vernon? Probably.

Much of California straddles fault lines. The joining of two land masses is unsteady and constantly shifting, which leads to earthquakes. So it stands to reason the seismic activity that occurred in San Francisco last Sunday between Mike Singletary and Vernon Davis, will produce some aftershocks.

When Singletary showed he wasn't about to have Davis big time him, the new coach showed himself to be decidedly old school. And it earned him some sideways glances. But I wonder if other coaches on other teams, with other petulant players who may or may not respect the game, have similar moments of reckoning? Could this be the start of a larger rumbling?

Deacon Jones would like that to be the case. The man dubbed the "Secretary of Defense," who's never short on opinion, doesn't always like what he sees on Sunday afternoons. "That's the greatest thing that could have happened to that kid," growls Jones. "If I was his teammate I would whup his ass myself. On our teams, when someone acted up like that, it wouldn't even get to the coaches. We would [mess] him up ourselves. That's the problem now. They outlawed all the ass whuppin."

The reason I know about David Deacon Jones—why I wanted to speak to him—is because my father taught me about his generation of athletes—guys like Sam Huff, Dick Butkus and Jones—whose careers and legacy were about more than games played. I heard how in 1961, shortly after the Los Angeles Rams drafted Jones, he almost single-handedly shaped the defensive end position. From a technical standpoint, he invented the head slap, whereby he would cuff an offensive lineman in his ear hole, leaving him disoriented as Jones made his way to the quarterback. And on the folkloric tip, it was Jones who, drawing on 5th century vernacular, coined the term "sack"—inspired by the Vandals' sacking of Roman cities.

Jones thinks the current state of the game is influenced in part by the decreasing physical nature of the rules. He says the game has been "cleaned up" of its violence. And that's not a good thing.

One of my NFL coaches, Emmitt Thomas, shared Jones' view. Thomas liked to remind us that no one in the modern era was tough enough to play in the 70s. Each week, while watching film, we'd pick someone on screen and say "That guy could have played when you did." Guys like Reggie White and Marshall Faulk. Thomas would peer over his bifocals, spit some tobacco into his Styrofoam cup, turn around and say, "Let me tell you something. Can't nobody on that screen play when I did."

Jones agrees with that assessment. "The game today is played from the neck to the waist," he says. "But we could hit you from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. And the quarterback was a wide open situation." That QB situation raises Jones ire, especially when it pertains to one quarterback in particular. "I get so pissed off every time I hear Brett Favre say he's played 279 games in a row," Jones says. "I would rather slap my mama than allow a quarterback to play 279 games in a row. Somebody supposed to put him on the ground!"

When it comes to the personalities of today, Jones thinks that some of the modern players, while outgoing, are lacking in vision. Jones hopes Singletary's voice and actions will reverberate all the way to Cincinnati, Ohio; Irving, Texas and beyond. "These guys don't respect the game because they don't respect themselves," he says. "You have to be able to separate the money from the performance if you know what I mean. Chad Johnson is a joke. He's chasing something he can't solve. He might as well just shut up and play it out in Cincinnati. Terrell Owens needs a lesson in team. He's so caught up in himself. That Pac Man Jones is a joke too."

The Deacon likes to tell the story about meeting Jackie Robinson as a kid. Jones told Robinson that one day he was going to be as famous as he was, but his intentions were pure. "I always honored those who came before me," says Jones. "But these guys don't think about the guys who came before them. There are guys in the league who are just [jerks] and not living up to their commitments."

Commitment is a learned thing for some. For others it comes naturally, and when influenced by the right coach, it's reinforced. Take Colts coach Tony Dungy. Anytime you talk to Dungy, there's a chance he'll reference Chuck Noll, who led the Steelers to four Super Bowl victories and is one of football's all time great coaches. Dungy's coaching style in many ways, honors Chuck Noll. Even now, as the Colts are struggling more than they ever have during his tenure, Dungy is at even keel, and seldom prone to bursts of emotion. "That's how coach Noll was," says Dungy. "And that's the way I do things."

As such, Dungy wasn't the least bit surprised by Mike Singletary's first day in office. Like him, Singletary clings to conservative coaching values. "His coach was that way too," said Dungy of Bears coach Mike Ditka. "And he was certainly effective."

But Deacon Jones is worried that the business of the game will soften Singletary's blow. Vernon Davis is far and away the best player on the Forty Niners roster, but Mike Singletary answers to a personal muse greater than physical talent, even if it means losing a playmaker to gain your soul. "There's some other coaches who want to do what he did, but they don't have the guts to do it," says Jones. "It's an owners' league. And owners won't let you mess with their investments. When you're going up against money, money always wins."

That was the case when Bill Parcells tangled with Terrell Owens. Surely you remember the infamous hamstring affair of 2006. The matter was effectively resolved by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who after publicly encouraging his star receiver to practice even while less than completely healthy, privately removed any obstructions between Parcells and the door.

Deacon may be doubtful, but what if old school values really can coexist with new school energy? What if everyone's collective desire to win rings—an appetite that has been known to eclipse all others—leads to a more disciplined generation of athletes? Some of us think it possible. Seriously. You can almost feel it.