To Be Tight, You've Got To Be Loose

And that's not all. A good tight end has to be as fast as a running back, have hands as good as a wide receiver and be big and strong enough to block the likes of Harvey Martin or Lyle Alzado
September 03, 1978

To the defensive backs he has beaten on a play called Ghost to the Post there is nothing at all friendly about Dave Casper, the Oakland Raiders' All-Pro tight end. For two seasons he has consistently bewildered NFL defenders and for almost as long he fooled his own coach, although in a different way.

"If you look at the way Casper carries himself," John Madden says, "you think he's dead. Watch him going back to the huddle; he looks worn out. In the first two years he was here, I used him as a spot player because I didn't think he had the stamina for a full game. He should have been a starter in his second year. There's never been a more deceptive athlete in that way than Ghost."

If Madden was wrong about the 6'4", 230-pound Casper, the Raiders' leading receiver in each of the last two seasons—101 receptions for 1,275 yards and 16 touchdowns—blame it on Casper's perplexing position as much as on his deceptive bearing. The tight end is an anomaly—half offensive lineman, half receiver. "I call us bastards," says Denver's Riley Odoms. "We're a combination of every position on the field."

A tight end must be at once large, strong and swift. In a sense he's the football equivalent of a decathlete, whose mastery of, say, the shotput often comes at the expense of, say, the 1,500 meters.

At his best, a tight end is both a drive-blocking lineman who is the key to a strongside rushing attack and a pass receiver who can break a zone defense by running a deep route with speed. Few athletes are so gifted as to excel at these disparate tasks. "A tight end has to take as much pride in his blocking as his receiving," says Russ Francis of New England, who, like Casper, shines in both arts. "Catching a touchdown pass is an obvious, enjoyable thing, the most glorious kind of moment you have in a game; blocking generally goes unnoticed except by your teammates and the coaching staff. But good blocking is the best way to earn respect. I enjoy it and I'm always working on it."

"I really think they are equal aspects of the job," says Casper. "From week to week you have to look at your game to find out exactly what it is you're doing worse and that's what you have to work on. There are guys who get a kick out of practicing only what they do best and making themselves feel good, but I think if you're going to practice seriously, you sometimes have to say, 'Well, I better go hit a few sleds.' It's pretty boring but it's simply got to be done."

Not every tight end is blessed with the all-round skills of Casper and Francis, though Billy Joe DuPree of the world-champion Cowboys and the Redskins' Jean Fugett, a '77 All-Pro, come close. Pro scouts say that Odoms, Dave Hill of Detroit and Henry Childs of New Orleans (who had nine scoring receptions last year) rank just below those four. Walter White of Kansas City compensates for his run-of-the-mill blocking by excelling as a receiver, much the same as Bob Trumpy did during his career at Cincinnati. Matching Casper with 48 receptions last year, White was the Chiefs' leading receiver with 674 yards and five touchdowns, certainly more than the club expected in 1975, when White was acquired for the $100 waiver price.

While a tight end's ability often dictates what an offense can do, especially with its running game, not every team fully utilizes the tight end. The Vikings play theirs much the same as teams did in the early '60s, primarily as a blocker and short-yardage receiver. So do the Patriots. The 6'6" Francis, who is the fastest 240-pounder in the NFL, caught only 16 passes last season for 229 yards and four touchdowns. Double-team defenses worked him over, to be sure, but the statistics bear out the notion that Francis' remarkable talent has yet to be exploited.

Although this is true about the best of these men, the position has gradually become more prominent in the NFL, and this season it should figure even more conspicuously. As receivers, tight ends will bear watching by defenses and fans alike for the simple reason that a new official will be looking at them, too.

In recent seasons, with the exception of Tampa Bay's Kamikaze quarterbacks, few football players have been battered more than tight ends going out for passes. Working in "blind" areas of the field, they were held, tripped and pummeled with near impunity. Up to now, such violations have gone unnoticed and unpunished by game officials whose attention has been focused on other areas of the field. In one game in Pittsburgh, Casper was held so often and so tenaciously that his jersey was yanked out of his pants a dozen times. Still, no Steelers were penalized, and Casper just kept on tuckin'. A few days later the league office fined the Raiders $250 for Casper's dangling shirttail, a uniform violation.

To help reduce the blown calls that angered so many fans last year, the NFL has beefed up its crews to seven men this season by adding a new official called a side judge. In part, his responsibility will be to curtail the kind of out and out assault that has passed for pass defense against tight ends.

"I think it's a good thing," says Casper, "it may stop some of the blatant stuff that's been going on all this time. In the past, if it was third and eight and the linebacker had coverage on me, he could wait for me to move three or four yards and just tackle me. The worst thing that would happen was we'd get a first down and five yards, and we probably would have gotten the first down anyway. The odds were for it because he'd get caught maybe once out of 10 times. Crime paid. Now, if the official has some intestinal fortitude, the guy will realize he can't pull that stuff anymore."

Score one for poetic justice if it works, because pro football will have made the game safer for those who play the only position pro football invented.

The tight end has been part of the pro game for almost 40 years. Although the origins of the position are somewhat obscure, the first tight end may have appeared in 1930 when Ralph Jones became coach of the Chicago Bears and unveiled a forerunner of the three-end offense that three decades later was hailed as being mainly responsible for the game's increasing popularity.

Jones was a Depression Era Tom Landry whose T formation offense normally flanked both ends and sent one of the backs in motion. Sometimes, however, the Bears flanked only one end. The other end, who stayed next to the tackle, thus became the tight end without so much as changing his stance.

Football positions are constantly redefined by players whose talents exceed the previous requirements, but a number of today's tight-end specifications could have been met by some of the pioneer models in the early '50s. Leon Hart of the '51 Lions, for example, was one of the first players to prove that size—huge size—could be an asset in catching passes.

Hart was 6'5" and played at 262 pounds and, as Paul Brown remembers, "His size was an overwhelming thing. Bobby Layne would throw him that quick pass over the middle and stopping him was like trying to tackle a truck out of control."

At the time Brown's tight end at Cleveland was Dante Lavelli, who ran pass patterns with 4.5 speed and got into his blocks just as quickly. Pete Pihos and Pete Retzlaff of Philadelphia also excelled at both phases of the game. But the first player who clearly defined what a tight end could do was Ron Kramer of the 1959 Packers, a 6'3", 230-pound receiver who was also a devastating blocker. Kramer was fast, had good hands and ran pass routes well, but his greatest value to Vince Lombardi was apparent when Green Bay ran off-tackle. By himself, Kramer would block a linebacker or lineman as the pivotal performer in Green Bay's legendary slants and sweeps. Since Kramer not only blocked his man but drove him backward. Green Bay opponents got a bad case of congestion instead of defensive pursuit. Kramer's strength gave the Packers the most effective power rushing attack in the NFL. Today the term "strong-side" refers to that side of the offensive line that includes the tight end.

The tight end's potential as a pass receiver became increasingly apparent through the exploits of Mike Ditka of the Bears, John Mackey of the Colts and Billy Cannon of the Raiders, each of whom made a significant contribution to the game and the position during the '60s.

Ditka, who caught 248 passes for 30 touchdowns in his first four seasons at Chicago, demonstrated that a lineman's physique is no handicap to being the most formidable receiver on the field. In 1964, the former Pittsburgh star set the record for tight ends by catching 75 passes, a total that has not been surpassed in the last 10 seasons even by a running back or a wide receiver.

Voted the greatest tight end of the NFL's first 50 years after only six seasons at Baltimore, Mackey was the first tight end who had the speed and moves to run deep pass patterns, once the sole province of outside receivers. While some of Mackey's routes were designed to go deep, others simply finished that way because he ran over tacklers like a charging rhino.

Cannon, the 1959 Heisman Trophy winner at LSU, was one of the first American Football League superstars as a running back. He was converted to tight end in 1965 after being traded from Houston to Oakland, which was then coached by Al Davis. The position switch probably extended Cannon's career, but Davis' reason for making the move was more pragmatic than benevolent. Defenses had adjusted to Davis' penchant for putting both wide receivers on the same side of the field by moving both cornerbacks there to cover them. The other side of the field was left to the slower safeties whom Cannon could beat with explosive releases consonant with his name. As zone defenses became more prevalent. Cannon's quickness also enabled him to beat the linebacker.

Today, the tight end's increased importance to a passing attack is the result of a rule change made in 1972. That's when the hash marks were moved in almost 11 feet closer to the center of the playing field in the hope that more scoring would be generated. What the change did instead was take away the wide side of the field to doubly benefit the defense. With the field more or less evened out, a secondary could wait until after the ball was snapped before it committed itself to a rotation that the quarterback could read. Now there was no big area to the wide side of the field to be protected, as in the past.

The hash-mark change also gave birth to the double zone, in which both wide receivers were covered by a corner-back and a safety. With both safeties rotating to the outside, the double zone left the middle of the field vulnerable to a tight end, who could usually beat the middle linebacker.

As an assignment, it is considerably more than a foot race, particularly for a player of Casper's caliber. "He's one of the most amazing players I've ever seen," Madden says. "He's big, strong, fast, tough and very intelligent, but his outstanding quality is his feel for the game. That's important because you never know what you're going to see as a tight end. There may be a linebacker or a defensive lineman over him at the line of scrimmage, or a strong safety right on top of him. If he gets by the lineman, there may be a linebacker or secondary rotation to his side. Of all the receiving positions, there are more things that can happen to a tight end at the start, so he has to have a feel for it; and here's where Casper is outstanding; he has the feel for what's happening and how he can adjust to it."

"As far as technique," Casper says, "I use some of the simplest releases of any tight end in the league. I mostly try to stay low, take off hard and get downfield quick. You only have so much time to run a pattern, and the deeper you can run it the better off you are because it gives you more room to come back for the ball."

As for blocking assignments, the match-up with a 275-pound defensive lineman is not as tough for Casper as the man-to-man block against a linebacker in a sweep. "It could be easier if we did it differently," he says. "We fire the guy straight up and sometimes shadow him down-field for four or five seconds, which gets kind of hairy. The other tough one comes when we're pulling the guards. You've got to hold the defensive lineman's penetration long enough for the backside guard to clear, and that's a long time. You can't let the guy get around the other side, either. I think it's one of the hardest things to do."

"You can use finesse in your blocking as a change-up," says Francis, "but it won't work over an entire game and eventually you've got to strike someone. And you can't be volatile at the position. You have to keep your head. You get too fired up and you'll blow your route or your block. Tight end is a specialty position and you don't succeed at it without discipline."

As far as Madden is concerned, offensive success is similarly unattainable without the tight end who can block and receive with equal skill. "If you don't have a tight end who is a good blocker," he says, "you don't have a strongside running attack. You've got two weakside running games and you have to use a lot of pitches, traps and finesse stuff. If your tight end is a blocker and not a receiver, the double zone is going to get you." For that reason, last July the Raiders reacquired Raymond Chester from the Colts, to whom they traded him in 1973. A hardworking tight end who averaged 17.9 yards per reception last year, Chester gives Madden two strongside running attacks as well as insurance should Casper get hurt.

Punishment, however, is something Casper accepts as his due. "You have to have an attitude that allows you to chuckle while a guy is pounding you in the face," he says. "Not that it's funny, but if you start worrying about that stuff, it will get to you."

With a new official on hand to keep face-pounding to a minimum this season, don't be surprised if tight ends aren't the loosest bunch in the NFL.

ILLUSTRATIONEDWARD KASPERWith a total of 101 catches, Dave Casper was Oakland's leading receiver the last two seasons. ILLUSTRATIONEDWARD KASPERWalter White was picked up by Kansas City for the $100 waiver price. Last year he led the Chiefs in receptions with 48. ILLUSTRATIONEDWARD KASPERThe Patriots' Russ Francis is the fastest big man in the NFL. Nonetheless, he is used more as a blocker than as a receiver. ILLUSTRATIONEDWARD KASPERDenver's Riley Odoms, a three-time Pro Bowl player, is a bruising blocker and caught 37 passes for the Broncos last year. ILLUSTRATIONEDWARD KASPERBilly Joe DuPree, one of Dallas' favorite targets on third-down plays, is an All-Pro whom defenses honor with double coverage.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)