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Bert Jones: The legend of the Ruston Rifle

The best quarterback you have never heard of?
Publish Date: 12/25/2023
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

Football was part of BertJones’ life from a young age. His dad, Dub Jones, was a receiver on some legendary Browns teams, coached by Paul Brown. Instead of summer vacations, Jones was at Browns training camp. He became a star at LSU, a top draft pick and an NFL MVP. In 1976 Jones was the National Football League star; he was so good that when asked in 1976 who was the best quarterback in the NFL, Joe Namath immediately responded that it was Bert Jones. When asked outside of Tom Brady who was the best quarterback he had ever seen, Bill Belichick responded with Bert Jones. Now, if you are under the age of 40, you have probably never heard of Bert Jones, and that’s a shame because he was a great quarterback and as tough as they come.

Bert at LSU

Joe Burrow was not the first great quarterback in LSU history that would go to Bert Jones, who had a cannon for an arm, and he was very athletic to go with that arm. Jones could do it all and usually did. He had some run-ins at LSU with head coach Charlie McClendon but started the last 15 games at LSU, winning 12 of them and finishing 4th in the Heisman Trophy voting. Jones was expected to be the first player chosen in the 1973 NFL draft but went to the Baltimore Colts with the second pick in the draft. The Colts needed somebody to take over the quarterbacking duties from the legendary Johnny Unitas, and Jones was seen as a perfect fit.

Video: LSU 28 ND 8 1971

LSU 28 ND 8 1971

Jones and the Colts

Jones would turn the Colts into a perennial AFC power in the mid-70s leading the Colts to three straight AFC East titles. Unfortunately, they ran into two legendary teams that would beat them in the first round in all three years. In 1975 and 76, the Colts were beaten easily by the Pittsburgh Steelers, and in 1977 the Colts would fall in one of the greatest playoff games ever played, losing to the Oakland Raiders 37-31 in the famous “Ghost to the Post” game. The Colts had some weapons for Jones in the mid-70s, led by receivers Roger Carr and Glenn Doughty and running back Lydell Mitchell. After 1977, many people thought the Colts would be the next super team in the AFC, but that all changed in the 1978 preseason as Jones sustained a shoulder injury, which would be a reoccurring problem through the 1978 and 1979 seasons. The big problem would be Jones unwillingness to relax and rehab it as he would constantly be trying to play with negative results. 1978 and 1979 would find the Colts in last place without their star quarterback.

Video: Bert Jones Colts Highlights | 1976 NFL MVP

Bert Jones Colts Highlights | 1976 NFL MVP

1980 and beyond

By 1980 Jones was reasonably healthy, but by then, the team was terrible, and probably the lowest point would have been a game against the St.Louis Cardinals when Jones was sacked a record 12 times in a single game. The Colts started 4-2 and looked like a good team, but the wheels fell off as the colts would only win three of their final ten games. Things would not get better from then on for the Colts or Jones. 1981 was even worse as the Colts were one of the worst teams in NFL history. The defense was epically bad and gave up well over 500 points and almost 7,000 yards in just that one season! Owner Bob Irsay called plays from the coaches’ booth during a 38-13 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles to show you how bad things had gotten. Quarterback Bert Jones had this to say about the incident in a 1986 Sports Illustrated article [Irsay] couldn’t have told you how many players there were on the field, never mind what plays we had. All he was trying to do was embarrass the coaches and the players. When he told me to run, I threw. When he told me to throw left, I ran right.

The 1982 season would see Jones get out of that toxic situation in Baltimore and head out to Los Angeles to become the quarterback for the Rams. That would be short-lived, as Jones would sustain a severe neck injury in a 20-14 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. The damage would put a final nail in the coffin of the career of Bert Jones.

The comeback, almost.

To show you how special Jones was and how extraordinary his arm strength was in 1990. Jones participated in the first NFL Quarterback Challenge. He finished first in the retiree category and third in the regular competition (The regular competition taking the top three finishers from the alumni competition and adding them to the regular field of current quarterbacks). Given his strong performance, Bobby Beathard, then the general manager of the Chargers, wanted Jones to come out of retirement, but Jones was 38 at the time and chose not to try a comeback and the doctors he asked said that it was not a good idea.

What might have been

Jones was so good that it had made me think before, what if he didn’t get injured? Would the Baltimore Colts still be in Baltimore because after Jones got hurt, the Colts spiralled to the basement of the AFC East. Even with how good Jones was, Irsay killed that Colts team; he made wrong decision after bad decision and eventually, the Colts were going to move anyway. But I do know this without the injury issues starting in 1978 Jones would have been a hall of fame quarterback, Jones was one of only three quarterbacks to achieve a 100+ passer rating during the entire decade of the 1970s, joining Dallas’ Roger Staubach (1971) and Oakland’s Ken Stabler (1976) were the other two and Jones was named the NFL MVP for that 1976 season.

If you don’t believe me, listen to Longtime scout Ernie Accorsi, who says that if Bert Jones had played under different circumstances, he probably would have been the greatest player ever. John Riggins said Jones was the most formidable competitor he had ever witnessed. On the eve of Super Bowl XLII, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, discussing his choices for the greatest quarterbacks of all time, described Jones as the best “pure passer” he had ever seen. We will never know how great Jones could have been, and unfortunately, the NFL is littered, especially before 1990 with players whose careers were shortened by injuries. Still, this much is known, Bert Jones was a special player who should never be forgotten.

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