November 2, 2006

A BOOK IF YOU GET THE OTHER?:

The Tight End's Evolution to Necessity From Novelty (ALLEN BARRA, November 2, 2006, NY Sun)

You don't even see the position listed on NFL rosters in the late 1950s. Many teams back then were still using a third running back and occasionally putting him out in some kind of slotback position to catch short passes or to block on end runs. Steve Sabol of NFL Films probably offers the best explanation for the lack of answers to the question of the game's first tight end: "It's like asking ‘Which was the first brontosaurus?' Something like that doesn't just appear, it evolves."

If so, the evolutionary process took an X-Men-like leap forward when Vince Lombardi joined Green Bay in 1959. Or, rather, when he finally worked out some kinks in the Packers system in 1961, his first championship year, and found the proper position in his lineup for a 6-foot-3, 240-pound former Michigan receiver named Ron Kramer. Kramer caught 28 passes in 1957 in his first season with the Packers and was listed on the roster as "left end." But he was a tad too slow for the NFL, and so, for the next two years he was mostly left out. Perceiving that Kramer was a superb blocker and that his receiving talents would be wasted on the interior line, Lombardi, in effect, created a new position for him, lining him up opposite the Packers' left offensive tackle — not always on the left, but usually. Since his quarterbacks were right-handed and rolled to their right, Kramer would be rolling with them, sweeping under the pass coverage. From 1961 through 1964, he became their secret weapon.

It wasn't a pass-happy era, and the Packers threw much less than most NFL teams. But when they threw to Kramer, they got spectacular bang for their buck. In his four seasons as a starter for Green Bay before a contract dispute landed him in Detroit, Kramer caught 138 passes for an eye-opening 16 yards a catch. To illustrate just how impressive that is, consider that the Packers' most prolific wide receiver over that period, the great Boyd Dowler, averaged 15.7. The difference between throwing to Kramer and throwing to Dowler is the difference between throwing to any great tight end versus any great wideout: With the wideout, you generally put the ball downfield and risk an interception, whereas with the tight end, you usually have to make little more than a short, quick pop over the middle as he breaks off the line.

Kramer's first year as a starter in 1961 was also the rookie season for a sensational tight end from the University of Pittsburgh, Mike Ditka, who caught 56 passes, averaged 192 yards a catch, and scored 12 touchdowns for the Bears — though purists argue that Ditka wasn't primarily a tight end, as he did little blocking that year and most of the time lined up in the slot between the offensive line and the wide out. Ditka, of course, went on to the Hall of Fame, as did the league's next great tight end, John Mackey, who broke in with the Colts in 1963. The three created the prototypes for modern NFL tight ends, the guy who could both block and catch with equal facility.

Tight end remains practically the only position in pro football that demands multiple skills: If you aren't a good blocker and good receiver, you don't play. Actually, it demands three skills if you count the ability to both run and pass block.


Which is why one of the two players of the past forty years who was capable of starring at every position on both sides of the ball was a tight end: Kellen Winslow.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 2, 2006 8:07 AM
Comments

Tight end remains practically the only position in pro football that demands multiple skills: If you aren't a good blocker and good receiver, you don't play.

Actually, he undermines his argument about the importance of the tight end with that bit.

In reality (as he mentions elsewhere in the article), the position has become so important that teams carry multiple tight ends, some of whom are either better blockers or better receivers.

Further to this story, Bill Parcells has de-emphasized the fullback in his offense, claiming that the two-tight-end set simply gives him much more flexibility at the point of attack than the traditional fullback formations.

Posted by: kevin whited at November 2, 2006 8:57 AM

Tight ends, "H Backs" and Fullbacks seem to be morphing together.

A lot of times the good TEs played QB in High School but for whatever reason moved in college.

OJ poses a fascinating question. I agree on Winslow. The other guy is probably an athletic TE who could toss the ball. Coates and Sharpe were 2 of the best of the 90s.

Posted by: JAB at November 2, 2006 9:41 AM

Mel Blount!

Posted by: Bartman at November 2, 2006 9:51 AM

Not to be picky, but I don't think Ditka "averaged 192 yards a catch" his rookie season. I'd be curious what his receiving average was...

Posted by: Jeff at November 2, 2006 10:13 AM

Hint: the other guy was actually listed on team depth charts as the third string QB, P and K and after practice would kick three field goals from the fifty, throw three passes fifty yards and punt fifty yards three times just in case.

Posted by: oj at November 2, 2006 10:36 AM

Jack Ham.

Posted by: ratbert at November 2, 2006 10:48 AM

Walter Payton? He threw 9 TD passes in his career and was the back-up punter for the Bears. Don't know about field goals. He was also the national runner-up on the Soul Train Dance contest.

Posted by: jeff at November 2, 2006 10:59 AM

Couldn't play either line.

Posted by: oj at November 2, 2006 11:06 AM

Danny White?

Posted by: Bartman at November 2, 2006 11:41 AM

White couldn't tackle or block.

Posted by: oj at November 2, 2006 12:06 PM

Bo

Posted by: Palmcroft at November 2, 2006 12:17 PM

Walter Payton?

Posted by: Ed Driscoll at November 2, 2006 12:38 PM

Alan Page?

Posted by: The Other Brother at November 2, 2006 12:39 PM

Whoops--didn't see that this was the only time that Payton didn't make the cut.

Posted by: Ed Driscoll at November 2, 2006 12:43 PM

Ditka did so average 192 yards per catch in his rookie year. And he played the whole season with a broken leg.

Little know fact, even as Da Coach he'd suit up to scrimmage against Buddy Ryan's defense and score a touchdown every time he touched the ball. Mike Singletary would cry if Ditka came anywhere near him with the ball.

Posted by: Superfan at November 2, 2006 12:51 PM

Adam Vinatieri?

Posted by: Ed Driscoll at November 2, 2006 1:08 PM

It is more than 40 years, he retired in 1965, but I am going to guess Jim Brown of the Browns.

Posted by: Bob at November 2, 2006 1:31 PM

19.2 ypc, not 192. For Ditka that is.

Posted by: Bartman at November 2, 2006 1:46 PM

Been more than 40 years, but I'll guess Lou Groza.

And if you tell me it's George Blanda, I'll just say Mean Joe or Bubba - Blanda would have been out cold before the quarterback took his first step.

Posted by: jim hamlen at November 2, 2006 2:07 PM

Some other candidates:

Paul Hornung, Deion Sanders, Frank Gifford, Jim Brown

Posted by: The Other Brother at November 2, 2006 2:16 PM

Wahoo McDaneil

Posted by: Matt Cohen at November 2, 2006 2:41 PM

Wahoo McDaniel

Posted by: Matt Cohen at November 2, 2006 2:42 PM

You guys are overthinking this. He's the most dominating defensive player ever in the NFL.

Posted by: oj at November 2, 2006 3:08 PM

Lawrence Taylor?

Posted by: Matt Cohen at November 2, 2006 3:14 PM

LT.

(I suspect TE Ben Watson of the Patriots wouldn't be an embarrassment at any position, and LBs Bruschi and Vrabel could be feasible, too. But none of them would likely fair well on the line at 250 pounds, give or take...)

Posted by: Mike Earl at November 2, 2006 3:21 PM

Garo Yepremian

Posted by: The Other Brother at November 2, 2006 4:33 PM

This guy?

(I won't say his name because he played for Chicago.)

Posted by: Matt Murphy at November 2, 2006 4:41 PM

Why do I get the feeling that the guy who meets OJ's criteria played for the Jets?

Posted by: Matt Murphy at November 2, 2006 4:42 PM

Ding, ding, ding!!!! Thank you, Mike & Matt! Send your addresses, I'll send a books.

Posted by: oj at November 2, 2006 4:45 PM

Does "LT" mean Lawrence Taylor or LaDanian Tomlinson; if it's Lawrence Taylor, then Matt gets the book.

Posted by: Mike Morley at November 2, 2006 4:58 PM

Well, LT could do a lot, but pass coverage wasn't one of them.

Posted by: jim hamlen at November 2, 2006 7:04 PM
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