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.