Legends of DVOA: Brent Jones
When sorting through the great players of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Brent Jones is easy to overlook. He ranks a notch below the Joe Montana/Steve Young/Jerry Rice Mount Rushmore types among San Francisco 49ers heroes and West Coast offense pioneers. He also ranks below the pantheon of all-time great tight ends that extends from Mike Ditka through Kellen Winslow and Tony Gonzalez to Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce. Yet Brent Jones finished first in DVOA twice and DYAR three times from 1989 through 1994. He must have done something right besides waiting for Montana and Steve Young to check down to him when Rice was double-covered.
So let's look back at a great team, a great scheme, and an outstanding tight end who also had the fortune to land in the right place at the right time.
Another Small-School Standout
Our primary source for Jones' early days is this Football All-Stars documentary on Jones:
To spare you nearly 30 minutes of Super NES-era graphics, ever-tilting camera angles and other quirks of mid-90s low-budget television production, here are some highlights:
- Jones' father, a high school coach who was drafted by the Raiders in 1960, played "100 catches" before bedtime with Jones and his brother. If either of the siblings dropped a pass, the count would start over, and no one could go inside until he caught 100 consecutive passes. Such a father-child bonding activity has about a 0.1% chance of producing a Brent Jones but a 99.9% chance of producing an adult that gets banned from youth baseball games for screaming at the umpire.
- The Jones family later graduated to a game in which the kids were tasked with leaping face-first into some bushes to make diving catches. Lest you think I'm a snowflake, I'm cool with this one. Getting scratched up a bit by the local flora builds character in a child.
- Jones started out as a wide receiver and baseball catcher on a two-sport partial scholarship at Division II Santa Clara and ended up a starting tight end and mid-round NFL prospect. It's a remarkably modern tight end origin story. Every draft seems to produce a few small-program tight ends who were lightly recruited multi-sport athletes before a growth spurt or some sort of weight-room epiphany: Zach Davidson this year, Adam Trautman and Harrison Bryant last year, Dallas Goedert, Adam Shaheen, etc. Shannon Sharpe, Ben Coates, and Eric Green were all successful tight ends who came from smaller programs at around the same time as Jones. In a few paragraphs I write a bit about how the tight end position is always being "revolutionized" by some new group of small-school receivers, college power forwards, or whatever. In fact, tight end has long been a position at which NFL teams were willing to take a chance on huge dudes who could run and catch.
- Jones received a "letter of inquiry" from the Dallas Cowboys after his sophomore year of college, asking him about his size, speed, and so forth. I never knew that teams wrote letters to prospects asking them for measurables. I imagine they got a lot of responses like "I am 6-foot-10, weigh 330 pounds, and run a 4.1-second 40."
That brings us to the start of Jones' NFL career. Pittsburgh drafted him in the fifth round in 1986, but Jones was involved in a head-on collision with a drunk driver on Mother's Day, suffering a severe neck injury. The Steelers kept him on the roster until early in the season, then released him. "Ironically … one of the greatest things that happened to me was the serious car accident my wife and I were in," Jones said near the end of his career. "For whatever reason, [the Steelers] didn't think I'd get better, and they released me, and I came here and my career kind of came around."
Jones signed with his hometown 49ers but found himself trapped at the bottom of a depth chart topped by two solid veterans in Russ Francis and John Frank.
The 49ers team Jones joined had already won two Super Bowls in the early 1980s. But they were about to become even better and help redefine the expectations for an NFL offense. And Jones eventually became a big part of it.
Dentists, Fullbacks, and Wrasslers
When Bill Walsh arrived in San Francisco in 1979, he inherited Ken MacAfee, a Notre Dame tight end like any other (only more so) who finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting after a 54-catch season for the consensus national champions in 1977. Walsh wanted to move this Kyle Rudolph-in-his-prime specimen who played with Joe Montana in college to guard! Walsh was looking for smaller, quicker interior linemen for his offense, and he didn't appear interested in featuring the tight end all that much in his passing game. Anyway, MacAfee told Walsh to cut bait and became a dentist.
Walsh's first non-dental tight end in San Francisco turned out to be Charle Young, a former sixth-overall pick who enjoyed 50-plus-catch seasons for the "Fire High Gang" Eagles in 1973 and 1974. Young caught 29 passes in 1980, and wide receiver Dwight Clark caught 82 more. But the groundbreaking player in Walsh's offense was rookie fullback Earl Cooper, who caught 83 passes, second in the NFL to Winslow. When the 49ers reached the Super Bowl after the 1981 season, Cooper caught Montana's first Super Bowl touchdown pass on a play called "slot left fullback 2 hide"—a play-fake to Cooper, followed by a dump-off pass to him in the flat. Kyle Shanahan's playbook contains similar concepts.
Walsh began transitioning Cooper to tight end, a move Cooper welcomed because the collisions were far less violent. "Think about it," he would later say. "You're 2 feet away from a person as opposed to always getting a 7-yard running start. It's like bumping a car in the parking lot instead of going 20 miles per hour."
Cooper played mostly as a package H-back after the switch. Walsh signed Russ Francis to be his starter. Francis was an enigmatic dude, as was Charle Young (who changed the spelling of his first name about 20 times during and after his career). Francis' father was wrestler/promoter Gentleman Ed Francis, and Russ attended high school with future WWE Hall of Famer Don Muraco, so he sat out his final season at Oregon to eat up his college eligibility and flirted with a pro wrestling career. The Patriots drafted Francis 16th overall in 1975 despite his other interests, and he enjoyed some fine years before retiring after a motorcycle accident/contract dispute and joining the ABC broadcast team in 1981. Walsh convinced Francis to Gronk his way back into the league when they met at the Pro Bowl after that season.
Cooper and Francis shared tight end duties when the 49ers went 15-1 in 1984, but Roger Craig—reprising something similar to Cooper's old all-purpose fullback role—led the 49ers with 71 receptions. Craig finished second to Marcus Allen in receiving DYAR among running backs that year. Lots of running backs were major components of their teams' passing games, but Walsh was changing the underlying principle of what Craig and halfback Wendell Tyler were expected to do. The two backs still blocked for one another and tried to confound the defense's keys on running plays, but their primary role increasingly became to create mismatches for the short passes that were replacing handoffs in Walsh's game plans.
Innovations for tight ends, on the other hand, were still mostly coming from the Don Coryell/Joe Gibbs coaching family.
Francis was fading when Jones joined the 49ers in strike-shortened 1987. John Frank and Ron Heller started at tight end in 1988, but neither of them stood out in an offense that now featured Craig and Jerry Rice. Bill Walsh retired after the 1988 49ers won the Super Bowl, giving way to George Seifert and offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren. Frank also retired, and Heller (a rugged blocker with awful hands) signed elsewhere, apparently opening up the door for Jones. But the 49ers drafted Mississippi star tight end Wesley Walls in the second round and added veteran thumper Jamie Williams via Plan B free agency (don't ask).
It looked like Jones would miss his chance to contribute to the lore of the West Coast offense. In fact, his window of opportunity had just opened.
Finding Holes and Seams
Walls was slow to learn the notoriously complex West Coast offense as a rookie. Williams broke a finger and missed most of the 1989 season. Jones seized his starting opportunity, catching 40 regular season passes and eight more (with three touchdowns) in the playoffs for a team that went 14-2 and pulverized the Broncos in the Super Bowl.
Writing for the Sporting News early in 1990, Ira Miller called Jones "a good, medium-range receiver and adequate blocker." Miller also quoted Seifert not-quite praising Jones' blocking: "To say that Brent has been a particularly strong blocker might be overstating it, but he has been an effective blocker." Thanks, coach!
Blocking aside, Jones finished second in the NFL in DYAR in 1989; Rodney Holman of the Bengals, coached by Walsh disciple Sam Wyche, led the league. Jones finished fourth in DVOA behind Mike Dyal (a Raiders one-year wonder rookie), Holman, and Mark Bavaro, but ahead of Ozzie Newsome, Jay Novacek, Keith Jackson, and many other big names of the era. The 49ers appear to have been less than completely satisfied, however: they exposed Jones to Plan B free agency. The 26-year-old coming off his first truly great season found no takers and returned to his hometown team.
Jones would lead the league in DYAR and finish second to Bavaro in DVOA in 1990, catching 56 passes for 747 yards and five touchdowns. Jones also delivered a singular highlight that season, dragging reluctant dance partner Deion Sanders into the end zone at the end of a 67 yard catch-and-run.
Montana described that play after the game as "a fake sweep, designed to bring Jerry [Rice, of course] across the middle to block. The tight end was the second guy behind him. Against teams that take your wideouts away, sometimes that happens."
What "happens" is that tight ends like Jones end up getting covered by linebackers, especially back in the days when defenses didn't play nickel two-thirds of the time. When Rice and John Taylor are your wideouts, opponents have little choice but to try to take them away. That opened up more and more opportunities for Jones.
Jones injured his knee early in 1991 and missed several games. Montana missed the entire 1991 season with an elbow injury. When Jones returned to the lineup, he was paired with the quarterback he used to commiserate with and sometimes roomed with when both were backups: Steve Young.
Jones would become one of Young's favorite targets. Jones led the league in DVOA and DYAR in 1993 with a 45-628-4 stat line on 64 targets. Jones would top the league in both categories again in 1994 at 49-670-9 for a team that pummeled the Chargers in the Super Bowl. He became famous for getting open on seamers, which the 49ers then called "pipeline" routes, finding that sweet spot between the lumbering linebackers and overtaxed safeties.
If Jones' catch totals appear a little low—Shannon Sharps caught over 80 passes in both 1993 and 1994, and Ben Coates caught 96 passes for the Patriots in 1994—it's both because there were only so many footballs to spread around and because a rash of offensive line injuries in 1994 forced Jones to stay in and block for Young more often than he was used to. By Jones' estimation, his pass protection had improved a bit since Seifert's lukewarm review a few seasons earlier. "I've really come a long way," Jones said in a Los Angeles Times profile during Super Bowl XXIX media week. "I was generally a wide receiver coming into the league. I've gotten to the point where I think I'm pretty good at it."
"Brent is just the best in the league in finding holes and seams. And he catches every ball," Young said in the same feature. "To me, there's Jerry's greatness and everything else, but I don't think you have a great offense unless you have a great tight end."
The Tactical Evolution
The tight end position is always being "revolutionized," and that revolution always began about 10 years ago, no matter what year you start in. Every position on the football field has been evolving slowly over the decades, but tight ends hold a particular fascination while causing a type of amnesia among the media and the public. Just as we all walked uphill in the snow both ways and dove into bushes for playground footballs all afternoon as kids, tight ends strictly lined up next to right tackles and blocked on running plays when we were young. Only recently did they become big slot receivers, right?
Tight ends have been major components of the passing game since Mike Ditka, John Mackey, and Jackie Smith. Teams drafted well-built college receivers with the intention of moving them to tight end throughout the 1970s. Kellen Winslow was motioning all over formations for the Chargers by 1980. Two-tight end base formations began sweeping the league as soon as Washington popularized them in 1982. By the time I became a Pro Football Weekly subscriber around 1992, old-timey columnists (and the old coaches they used as sources) were already lamenting about how tight ends had become pumped-up wide receivers who could not block. Tony Gonzalez was getting targeted 150 times per game 20 years ago. There's nothing that Kelce or George Kittle are doing today that wasn't done decades ago.
As I watched old YouTube videos of the 49ers, I kept looking for the thing Jones did differently, hoping I could categorize him as a pioneer like Winslow or Gronk. I never found it. Jones was who most of us probably assume he was. He thrived in the wide-open middle of the field vacated by the safeties chasing Rice and Taylor. He was a prime checkdown target for two masters of the checkdown in the most sophisticated offense of the era. Jones was a product of his environment.
But then, who isn't? As Young said, Jones was a sure-handed master of finding the hole in a zone. As that Prime Time-dragging video illustrates, he generated plenty of rumbling YAC. He was an adequate blocker at his worst and a pretty good one at his best. If Jones wasn't an excellent player in his own right, he would have ended up on the bench behind some bruiser who just blocked for 70 snaps per game.
What struck me when watching old games was that the Walsh offense Jones joined in 1987 looked like something that was still jerry-rigged atop a 1970s drive train. The Holmgren offense he played in from about 1992 onward looked like something you might see next September. That's no knock on Walsh and his legacy at all, just an acknowledgement that he and his successors were part of a continuum. The mid-1980s 49ers remained in 12 or 21 personnel on most early downs. The Holmgren teams might go three-wide on first-and-10 or second-and-3, sometimes employed trips wide formations, and occasionally emptied the backfield. The 49ers were forcing defenses to juice up their nickel defenses, to find linebackers who could run like Derrick Brooks, and to develop the Tampa-2 and other coverage schemes specifically to stop someone like Jones from gouging them up the "pipeline" when the safeties were otherwise occupied.
Jones might not have revolutionized the tight end position, but he demonstrated what a tight end could do in a game dominated by wide receivers. In that sense, he paved the way for players such as Kelce, offensive counterpunches who still packed one heck of a wallop.
Sunset on the Bay
Injuries began taking their toll on Jones in the 1996 season. He announced his plan to retire before the playoffs in 1997, when the 49ers finished 13-3 but lost to Holmgren, Brett Favre, and the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round.
In one sense, the sun set on the golden age of the 49ers slowly over the next five years, as Seifert gave way to Steve Mariucci, Rice to Terrell Owens, Young to Jeff Garcia, and so on. But in another sense, the 49ers took over the world. The NFL soon belonged to Holmgren and his assistants, the tactical grandchildren of Walsh. The West Coast offense simply became "offense." To this day, most of what we watch on Sunday was handed down from Walsh through Holmgren and Wyche or Coryell through Gibbs and his many assistants, with some read-option stuff bolted to the hood.
When the San Francisco Chronicle caught up with Earl Cooper in 2016, he was a high school special education teacher; many of his colleagues in the faculty lounge weren't even aware that he had once played in the NFL, let along caught the first touchdown pass in 49ers Super Bowl history.
Russ Francis took part in Wrestlemania II and later joined the National Wrestling Alliance as part of a tag team with his brother. More recently, he hosted a radio show about woodland life in Wyoming. He's a member of the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame. Wesley Walls moved on to have several productive seasons with the Carolina Panthers, where Seifert eventually joined him as that team's head coach.
You probably know what became of guys like Rice and Montana.
Jones spent several seasons as a television personality for CBS. He also joined Young and others in what became a successful business venture. He briefly coached high school football, serving as a mentor to 16-year-old Zach Ertz. He also tried his hand at politics and has remained outspoken about his Christian faith.
Does Jones belong in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? He has a case: he and Sharpe were the two best tight ends in the NFL for several years. Still, I'm reluctant to pound the table for a dynasty guy who might have been less successful in other circumstances when there is such a backlog of qualified candidates.
While Jones wasn't quite a pioneer, he remains an important evolutionary link in pro football's tactical history. Travis Kelce and George Kittle might be fullbacks or edge rushers today if Holmgren had stuck with players such as Frank or Heller at tight end. Jones demonstrated what a versatile tight end could do in a modern offense. And his DVOA titles remind us of just how important he was to one of history's greatest teams.