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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."