Friday, November 20, 2009

"Revolutionize" the tight-end position

You know what phrase I'm sick of hearing? Guess.

Yeah, it's "so-and-so revolutionized the tight-end position." You know you've heard it. Antonio Gates revolutionized the tight end position. Tony Gonzalez revolutionized the tight end position. Shannon Sharpe revolutionized the tight end position.


First of all,
let's reject out-of-hand the notion that this phrase could possibly apply to anybody who came after Kellen Winslow. Winslow led the league in receptions in 1980 and 1981, probably the first time a tight end did that. He was deadly from 1980-83, part of that explosive Air Coryell Chargers offense. He was the best I ever saw. (Also blocked the occasional field goal.)

The "revolutionize" phrase of course refers to a tight end who puts up big numbers catching passes as a receiver. Thru football history, tight ends have typically been big guys who functioned as extra linemen: they've been blockers. A little more agile than most linemen, they could go out and catch a pass, but it would be a pretty short pass, because tight ends were pretty slow, compared to wide receivers and running backs. You see this at all levels. The guy who "revolutionized" the position would be the guy who was big enough to play as a blocker, but fast enough to cause real problems as a receiver, catching passes and scoring touchdowns. Kellen Winslow was awesome.

Ozzie Newsome is another one whom you occasionally hear described as revolutionizing the position. Great player, Hall of Famer, retired as the career leader in receptions among tight ends (the record Shannon Sharpe broke). He came into the league a year before Winslow, and in fact was productive right away, getting 589 receiving yards as a rookie, with a very high 15.5 yards-per-catch average, which is a wide receiver's number rather than a tight end's. (His career high, as it would turn out.) But he never led the league in receptions, he averaged "only" about 5 TDs per season during his peak from '78 to '85, and he only squeaked by 1,000 receiving yards twice in his career. Barely. Winslow's peak was much shorter, about 1980-84, but he was very noticeably more productive in those years.

Another guy, who never gets mentioned but deserves to be remembered, is Todd Christensen of the Raiders. Pro Bowler from 1983 to 87, led the league in receptions twice (over 90 catches!), very high yardage and TD numbers in his best seasons. He also was a key member of a championship team, unlike the other guys mentioned so far, the great Raiders teams under Tom Flores in the mid-80s. Very, very fine player. More productive at his peak than Ozzie, really comparable to Winslow. But his first big-numbers season came a couple years after Winslow became a star. He's not the one who revolutionized the position.

How good were the receiving tight-ends of the late 70s / early 80s? Wow.
(The Raiders in particular did not suffer at that position. Prior to Christensen they had Hall of Famer Dave Casper.)

Would you believe there were good pass-catching tight ends before the 1970s? Fun little piece in today's Baltimore Sun:

Who are the top players in Baltimore football history?
8. John Mackey: An explosive receiver who could turn a short look-in pass into an 80-yard touchdown, he revolutionized the role of the lumbering tight end. His biggest catch was in the 1971 Super Bowl, a 75-yard TD in a 16-7 victory over Dallas.
(Johnny U was #1 of course.)

So Mackey was the one who revolutionized the tight end position! He's also the guy who once said “Being in the huddle with John Unitas is like being in the huddle with God.” Mackey was not just pithy. He was a 5-time Pro Bowler and 3-time All-Pro, 1963-68. Caught 9 TDs one year. That 80-yard TD in the quote above is not hyperbole: he had an 89-yard TD and an 83-yard TD in 1966, along with a 79-yarder and 3 others of 50+ yards. That's a home-run hitter right there. Check out his stats: they look like those of a modern tight end. They're very comparable to Todd Heap's! When you figure he's playing a 14-game season, in an era where the defense was basically allowed to mug a receiver downfield, and the rules did not protect quarterbacks the way today's rules do: it would take a special player to put up numbers like that.

So there you go.

But wait. What if the tight end's name was “Ditka”?

As a rookie in 1961, Bear's tight end Mike Ditka had 1076 receiving yards and 12 TDs, with over 19 yards-per-catch (4th in ypc among all players: the other leaders were wide receivers). He went to the Pro Bowl his first 5 seasons, 1961-65, and was All-Pro twice. The first tight end inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Who revolutionized the tight end position? Who did you expect?

The next time you hear that silly phrase used for some modern player, throw a pillow at the TV and yell “DITKA”!

1 comment:

  1. John Mackey revolutionized the position, and none other than DITKA said it was a crime that he got into the HoF before Mackey did.

    For those of us not born prior to 1961, I think it fair to say Winslow revolutionized the position.



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