John Mackey, Mike Ditka & Co. helped make tight end a special position in the minds of pro football fans. Now that spot is taking on increasingly more importance to offenses that are trying to combat the running problems created by 3-4 defenses.
That's why quality tight ends are in such demand around the league. Having just one good tight end is no longer enough for most teams. Coaches want at least two, so they can be employed at the same time, providing extra blocking strength on either end of the line. With just one tight end in the lineup, teams running to the weak side have trouble blocking the defense's outside linebacker. A second tight end handles that defender, which is one reason many clubs, such as the Redskins, are rushing better against 3-4 alignments this season.
Billy Sullivan, owner of the New England Patriots, had a locker room meeting with his players last week. In his five-minute talk, Sullivan told them the team would lose "about $750,000 from its projected budget for the season." But in praising the players' attitude -- "they never quit and they never pointed fingers" -- he also took a swipe at the NFL Players Association. "Ed Garvey (executive director of the NFLPA) is always talking about how the players are the league and about wanting a piece of the action. There's been talk about a players' strike next year and I just wanted to point out that this kind of a season will hurt us toward next year in the area of ticket sales. . . . Our last game (this season) in Baltimore could attract the smallest NFL crowd in modern history."
Philadelphia's Super Bowl hopes have been hurt by the loss of defensive end Claude Humphrey, who had arthroscopic surgery last week and was placed on injured reserve. He could be activated for the playoffs, but without him the Eagles have lost both a fine pass rusher and an inspirational leader . . . Eagle Coach Dick Vermeil is being criticized again for his conservative play-calling, although his team's 9-3 record still is tied for the league's best. But Philadelphia has never won by being fancy, only by playing solid, mistake-free football. The loss of tight end John Spagnola (hamstring pull) for much of the season hasn't helped the offense, either, since Vermeil is an advocate of using two tight ends.
Cleveland quarterback Brian Sipe is unhappy with what he calls "our predictable offense." And he said that before he was intercepted six times last week. His complaints center around the team's lack of a running attack, even though the Browns have three quality backs . . . Ex-Charger wide receiver Ron Smith on why he was glad to get away from San Diego: "I was being used as Wes Chandler's stunt man, and I felt it was time to get out of there" . . . Patriot Coach Ron Erhardt on that Hail Mary pass by Buffalo that beat his team last week: "We practice against that play every day. The thing that really makes it bad is that if we didn't have so many guys back there it might have worked out better. We had five people surrounding two and a sixth guy coming and everybody ran into one another."
The aftermath of the Oiler-Saint game is still being felt in Houston, where there are reports that Oiler players and Coach Ed Biles are feuding. It didn't help matters when former Houston coach Bum Phillips received an ovation from the Astrodome fans or that New Orleans won or that Saints owner John Mecom Jr. said afterward that Phillips was fired by Houston owner Bud Adams because of jealousy. Mecom added that 30 of the 45 Oilers told him that Phillips was the only coach who could straighten, them out. Biles was criticized for his conservative game plan by quarterback Ken Stabler, who realizes he could be replaced soon by Gifford Nielsen. And Biles, who already has received a vote of confidence from the front office, says that even fullback Earl Campbell could be traded for high draft choices "although it's highly unlikely."
Phillips tried to play down the game's importance, but Saint receiver Guido Merkens said that in a team meeting Phillips told his players it was a big game for him. "He felt the team was getting too tight so he told us he lied when he said all week it wasn't important to him. He said it was a matter of life and death -- his life and our death. That broke us up."
The decision by Fred Dryer to sue the Rams in an attempt to obtain this year's salary is just the latest in a series of disruptive incidents that have plagued the team this season. Only 21 players are left from the 1979 squad that almost beat Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl, and the Rams have never been able to make up for the loss of Dryer, quarterback Vince Ferragamo and linebackers Jack Reynolds and Bob Brudzinski because of contract problems. The quarterback situation has become a particular problem. It's very tough changing quarterbacks," Coach Ray Malavasi said. "When you're changing quarterbacks like we have, you're losing continuity, and when you have other problems it compounds it -- and we've had other problems." Oh, yes, Pat Haden is back starting at quarterback, not Dan Pastorini.
More heat from the NFL labor front: the NFL Management Council has begun publishing a newsletter, which is being sent to all players. It's designed to counter many of the arguments being espoused Ed Garvey . . . Garvey says that the average years of experience for an NFL player this season, 4.2, is the lowest since such statistics first were complied in 1959 . . . Despite his problems with extra points (29 of 36 this season), rokkie David Trout remains Pittsburgh's kicker. "We know he has the ability to do it," Coach Chuck Noll said. "It's just a question of getting himself grooved to do it. There's a little problem with his approach; he's jamming himself a little bit" . . . Ex-Redskin Wilbur Young, in his first game with the Chargers last week, drew praise from the team for his pass-rushing intensity, which helped Gary Johnson register four sacks.
Ironically, Young was delighted last spring when San Diego traded him to Washington, since he claimed the Chargers had given up on him the previous season.
Harold Jackson is only the third receiver in NFL history to account for 10,000 receiving yards. Yet he hasn't caught a pass in the last three New England games, which neither he nor his coaches can understand . . . George Rogers probably will win rookie of the year honors, and deservedly so, but this has been a fine season for such first-year players as linebacker Lawrence Taylor and cornerback Ronnie Lott. Both have been major reasons for the improvement of the Giants and the 49ers, respectively. But how bad would New Orleans be without Rogers?
. . . Tony Dorsett has sent his Dallas jersey to President Reagan as a gift . . . Look for quarterback Richard Todd to start for the Jets today, despite a sprained ankle and very sore ribs.