Dave Casper, Oakland's triple-touchdown hero in the playoff win over Baltimore, looked surprised that anyone would ask such a question.
Who is the best tight end in football?
"Me," said Casper, grinning. "There are some big guys and some fast guys and I don't know if I could outdo them in those categories. But I think I can outdo anyone overall. That's just my opinion."
The little-boy candidness that spills from this freckle-face redhead is as much a Casper trademark as his repertoire of skills: blocking, receiving, running and understanding the nuances of his multiduty position.
After his 10-yard pass reception beat Baltimore, 37-31, in the second overtime, Casper nonchalantly revealed that "I faked inside and went outside. Any stiff could have done it."
Those who mistake Casper's blunt honesty for irreverent conceit do not understand that Casper sees each of life's tasks as a simple proposition: you do it or you don't. So there's no need to be burdened by things like dumb questions, phony humility or specific goals.
Casper operated this way even in his 1974 rookie days when no one suspected he would one day be widely considered the best all-round player at his position.
Casper was just the fifth tight end chosen in the draft after Paul Seal, Andre Tillman, J.V. Cain and Ruben Gant. Oakland drafted him in the second round and he arrived at camp with a degree in economics from Notre Dame and few plans.
"My rookie year I didn't know enough to even think anything," said Casper. "I couldn't evaluate myself. I was just there to see what was going on."
Even at Notre Dame Casper had played tackle on the 1972 team that featured somebody named Mike Creaney a tight end. "Yeah, it held me back some," said Casper. "But it did teach me a few things about blocking."
At Oakland, his competition would be much tougher than Creaney. Bob Moore had been a solid starter at tight end for one year, and the Raiders acquired former all-pro Ted Kwalick in 1975.
His rookie year Casper played in all 14 games as a second tight end in short-yard situations. He caught four passes, "little bitty things" Casper calls them, and three of those little things went for touchdowns.
The script was similar in 1975 and Raider management, seeing what it had on the bench, let Moore go to Tampa bay inthe expansion draft after the season.
"By the middle of my second season I knew I could hold my own," said Casper. "No body big told me so but I knew I wouldn't go in the expansion draft. I knew the next year I would be a starter.
"A lot of people said there was an opening because Bob left. I never did believe that. I thought I could beat Bob out anyway."
As expected, Casper got the starting job last year and led the National Football League in receiving for several weeks. To many new starters, this would have been described as a thrill. To Casper, it was a fluke.
On his finest day, when he caught 12 passes for 136 yards in New England, Casper loped off the airplane in which he had been buckled for nearly six hours, threw his line into the murky San Francisco Bay and reeled in a fish at midnight. His day was then complete.
Casper finished with 53 catches for 691 yards and 10 touchdowns even though he missed a game. It was the year the Raiders finally won the big one, Super Bowl 11 and Casper's emergence was no small factor. Early in the season, Oakland's defense was on the mend and the rushing game was in no big hurry. The passing attack with Ken Stabler at the helm pulled out almost every early season win.
Without Casper, Oakland had a strong passing game with Cliff Branch, a deep threat 4.3 sprinter and Fred Piletnikoff, a cagey veteran who coated his hands with Hold-Tite glue, sliced cracks in defenses and picked up the key medium-range yardage.
With the addition of a catch-everything tight end to draw double coverage off the split receivers, Oakland had virtually a perfect passing unit.
Casper is by no means the only person who thinks Casper is the best tight end to be found. He was voted all pro last year. And after the victory over Baltimore, Colt tight end Raymond Chester said, "There are two thinks that make Dave Casper stand out. The first thing is his hands. I've never seen him drop a ball. The other thing is his ability to get open. It's uncanny. He has that sense for the ball. He's super in the clutch. He's the best in the league this year."
Stabler goes a step further.
"The Ghost," said Stabler, "is the best in the game."
It is difficult to pick out Casper's key ability. The Raiders have not timed him in the 40 or the 100 for fear he would pull a hamstring muscle in his bunched, 235-pound frame. At Notre Dame he was timed in 4.6 and came in second in the agility drills behind the punter.
Casper does not lift weights because he figures more bulk would hurt his speed. But in 1977 Super Stars competition, Casper was first in weightlifting and finished second in the Overall competition behind Kyle Rote Jr.
"I don't believe in goals," said Casper. "What difference does it make? Either you reach them or you don't."
To Casper, it's as simple as that.