As we head into football’s biggest weekend of the year, much of the pre-Super Bowl hype has focused on the match-up of Denver’s three great wide receivers (DeMaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Wes Welker) against the Seahawks’ four superb defensive backs (safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, cornerback Byron Maxwell and, most notably, the outspoken Richard Sherman).
These candidates are all worthy veteran players, averaging more than four and a half NFL seasons each. But keep your eye on All-Pro tight end Julius Thomas, the guy who will line up alongside either side of Denver’s offensive tackles—and a dark horse candidate for this year’s Super Bowl MVP. Thomas has become Peyton Manning’s go-to guy in just his first full NFL season, catching 79 passes and scoring 12 touchdowns, making him potentially the best ever at what might be pro football’s most demanding position.
With the ball in his hands, Thomas runs like what Seattle coach Pete Carroll admiringly calls “a sidewinder missile.” In perhaps the biggest play of the season, on January 12 against the Chargers in the AFC divisional round, the Broncos were struggling to protect a seven-point lead (24-17) with 3:53 left in the game. From their own 20-yard line, Manning was in a dangerous situation, third-and-17. He threw under the coverage to Thomas, who broke two tackles for a 20-yard gain and a key first down. Three plays later, on third-and-six from the Denver 45, Thomas slid off the line to grab a quick seven-yard pass, giving the Broncos another critical first down. A minute later the gun sounded, and the Broncos left the field to pack for New Jersey.
It’s not easy finding an athlete who can do all the things a tight end is supposed to do. The legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh once told me that tight ends “are freaks of nature. You see a young kid with a great arm you say, ‘That kid’s a future quarterback.’ You see a boy who hits really hard, you think ‘That’s a future linebacker.’" But tight ends, he told me, "are a strange hybrid. They have to be big and strong enough to block, have exceptional speed, and the hands to catch a pass over the middle.”
So great tight ends are rare. Since 1960, when the position of tight end came into being, the Pro Football Hall of Fame has inducted only eight, as compared to 22 wide receivers. Until the mid-1950s, most college and pro teams put all their receivers in close as part of the offensive line. In 1957, Army receiver Bill Carpenter became famous as “The Lonesome End” because he was flanked out wide, split away from the line—hence the term “split end.” Over a couple of seasons the guys who came in close to the line became “tight ends.”
The Green Bay Packers’ Ron Kramer may not have been the game’s first tight end, but he was the first player listed on a roster at that position. Kramer joined the Packers in 1957. He was a tad slow to be an NFL receiver, and at 6'3" and 235, he was smallish for an offensive lineman. In 1961 Packers coach Vince Lombardi tried lining up Kramer as a sixth offensive lineman, but often called his number as a receiver. Kramer averaged a sensational 16 yards per catch and was quarterback Bart Starr’s primary target in clutch situations, and over the next few seasons, smart coaches learned the advantage of a guy with the strength to block and hands to catch.