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Originally published Thursday, August 20, 2009 at 5:07 PM

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Steve Kelley

Is Walter Jones' knee surgery the beginning of the end of brilliant career?

Seahawks left tackle probably will miss first two games of season

Seattle Times staff columnist

RENTON — Don't be fooled by the sunshine and optimism on the shores of Lake Washington. Don't be comforted by the lush greens and blues that surround this most beautiful spot in the NFL.

Trouble is lurking by the lake.

Walter Jones has had surgery on his left knee again and everybody who loves football and loves watching greatness should be concerned, very concerned, for the future of the best left tackle to ever play the game.

The big news coming out of the Seahawks' camp this week, while not dire, certainly is disturbing. Jones had arthroscopic surgery Thursday morning on the same knee that underwent microfracture surgery last December.

This latest surgery was pronounced a success and, typically, recovery time is four to six weeks. Jones likely will miss at least the first two games of the regular season.

But more important, because he is 35, and because this is the second surgery on the left knee since his last season ended prematurely, there are understandable fears about just how healthy and just how efficient Jones can be in 2009, or beyond.

For 12 seasons, Seattle football fans have been spoiled by Jones. They've watched him dominate defensive ends. They've seen him escort Shaun Alexander through canyon-sized holes. They've watched brilliance.

"He's like going up against the best of the best," Hawks defensive end Patrick Kerney said after Thursday's practice. "I've played against a lot of great tackles in the 10 years I've been doing this. You think you have him beat and the next thing you know, he's back on you and you're ridden 8 yards past the quarterback.

"He's obviously a very rare, special athlete. He's the best I've played against, hands down. That's not to slight anybody else I've gone against. There are some great guys who are very hard to handle, but he's in a league of his own. He's a handful."

This latest surgery almost certainly means that Jones, who former Hawks coach Mike Holmgren called "the best offensive player I ever coached," no longer can be the most dominant left tackle in the game.

Probably we haven't seen the last of Walter Jones. But we've seen the last of the best of Walter Jones.

This season, football fans will be watching one of the greats playing in the twilight of his career. Sadly, this news, this injury, at best, is the beginning of the end.

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It means quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's blindside will be much less protected.

Now, the biological clock of Jones' heir apparent has been fast forwarded. Five-year veteran right tackle Sean Locklear will be the Hawks' starting left tackle.

"I'm more comfortable on the right," Locklear said. "It's a little bit different. Everything's backwards on the left. But since I've gotten in camp I've definitely gotten better. It takes time, switching to a new position. It's the hardest position on the line. That's why they get paid the big bucks.

"If Walt's not here, big shoes to fill. But we're thinking Walt's going to play this year. That's how we're taking it right now."

Locklear can't be Jones. Even more problematic, he can't learn much from watching Jones, who is so good, and unique, and can't be mimicked.

"It's hard learning from Walt because he's basically the best," Locklear said. "He's kind of got his own unique style and it's hard to watch. Some of the things he does, it's kind of unfair. We watch film on Willie Roaf and other left tackles and nobody does it like Walt."

If anybody can recover from this latest setback, it is Jones. He always has appeared superhuman in a football uniform. He is smart enough and good enough that he can learn the new zone-blocking techniques from the sideline. He can get ready for the season without many practice reps.

But how much game will he have left?

"He's hanging in there for us," guard Rob Sims said. "He wants to be part of this team. He wants to be part of this line. He's a fighter. He's done everything in this game you can get, except a Super Bowl [title].

"He's fighting to stay with us. He's an unbelievable player, an unbelievable human being. I expect him back. He's got the heart of a lion. When he gets back, we roll."

Knowing the size of that heart, Jones will do all of the necessary work to return this season. But we have to wonder just how much greatness is left in his game. And, in his absence, just how far the Hawks can roll.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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