Saturday, 13 August 2011


NOTE: this essay appeared first at Football Diner, to which you can link here...

The sad passing of John Mackey at age 69 attracted a lot of attention, but not nearly as much as it deserved. Just as he had done while he was alive, breaking barriers and extending boundaries, Mackey's death came just at the moment when it seemed the NFL's owners might begin to move to end their lockout of the players, who had decertified the union Mackey was instrumental in building. Make no mistake, the dropping of the anti-trust suit filed by individual players against the league was a major factor in getting the deal done; that the Players' Association will be re-certified has never really been in doubt.

Mackey was the first president of the NLPA, and his commitment to its cause could be traced back to his having a contract thrust in front of him and being told to sign. Mackey, a minister's son from Long Island, who'd followed another Long Islander, Jim Brown, to Syracuse University, where he was a student as well as a football player, didn't sign that contract, and never forgot the insult to both his dignity and his intelligence. His great legacy with the NFLPA was to overturn the Rozelle Rule, helping to create a more viable form of free agency, and winning compensation for those players whose movement had been restrained by the rule.

But more attention should have been paid to the way Mackey died, suffering from the dementia which had become noticeable in his public appearances years earlier, and which had led his wife Sylvia to petition Paul Tagliabue on his behalf, which led to the creation of the 88 plan, named after Mackey's number, which was the first step toward starting to take care of those whose lives have been harmed indelibly by playing pro football. That these moves will be expanded and intensified as part of the current settlement is a credit to both sides in the negotiation, but also a tribute to the Mackeys.

Mackey's legacy on the field is an odd one, because he was universally recognised for a breakthrough that wasn't exclusively his, yet at the same time one very strange devaluing of his legacy went unnoticed. Let me explain.

Don Shula's quote to the Baltimore Sun was used to define Mackey's greatness as the prototype tight end. 'Previous to John, tight ends were big strong guys like (Mike) Ditka and (Jerry) Kramer who could block and catch short passes over the middle. Mackey gave us a tight end who weighed 230, ran a 4.6 40 and could catch the bomb. It was a weapon other teams didn't have.'

Well, yes and no. You could argue Ditka and Kramer in 1961 (and Fred Arbanas in 1962 in the AFL) were the first wave of tight ends—previously you had two ends, who might play in line or split, and now you had a designated 'tight' end and a designated 'split' end, as well as a 'flanker' who was evolving from a running back like Lenny Moore or Bobby Mitchell into an end like Gary Collins or Boyd Dowler.

But neither Ditka nor Kramer were really that much bigger than Mackey, and though neither was as fast, it wasn't like they were catching quickies over the middle. In Ditka's 1961 rookie season with the Bears he caught 56 passes for 1,076 yards (19.2 yards per catch) and 12 touchdowns. That's a lot of YAC if he was running short patterns. You could argue he broke tackles or outran slower linebackers, but remember too, these were George Halas' Bears, and Billy Wade was the QB. He never matched those numbers again, and the grind of blocking slowed him down as a receiver. Kramer was no burner either, but between 1961-64 he averaged between 15 and 16.8 yards per catch. Arbanas, over the entire course of his career (1962-70) averaged 15.7.

You can argue Mackey added a deep dimension to the passing game, and may have forced the designated strong safety to cover tight ends. His rookie season he caught 35 passes for 726 yards (20.7 ypc) and seven scores. In the next three seasons he would average 18.5, 20.4, and 16.6 yards per catch, but after 1967 injuries slowed him down too; he had only one more eason with an average higher than 14.3.

But there was another contemporary of Mackey's, making his debut in the same season, 1963, who also provided his team with a downfield passing threat. Although he's remembered primarily for one pass he didn't catch, over the course of his career Jackie Smith averaged 16.5 yards per catch, and his 1967 season was spectacular: 56 catches 1,205 yards, 21.5 yards per catch, 9 touchdowns. Even though Smith's in the Hall of Fame, he's not looked at as a mould-breaker the way Mackey is, though I think he ought to be.

Which is not to imply he was Mackey's equal as a tight end. Smith wasn't quite the devastating blocker Mackey, Ditka or Kramer were. It's reflected in their legacies: Mackey, Ditka, and Smith all played in five Pro Bowls, but Mackey was first-team All-Pro three times, Ditka twice, Kramer once, and Smith not once at all (although I'd argue he should have been in 1967). If you were picking the best tight end in football, it probably would be Ditka in 61, Kramer in 62, Mackey in 63, Ditka in 64, Mackey in 65-66, Smith in 67, Mackey again in 68 and in 69 either Jerry Smith or Bob Trumpy.

The NFL recognised this. Mackey was named the tight end on the all-decade team for the Sixties, and when the 50th Anniversary All-Star team was chosen, he was the tight end on that squad too.

But then something strange happened. 25 years later, when the Pro Football Hall of Fame chose the 75th anniversary team, Mackey had disappeared. And not because Kellen Winslow was chosen at tight end, which was understandable: Winslow was a bigger, faster version of Mackey, though probably not the blocker Mackey was. But they chose two tight ends, and the other was Mike Ditka.

I'm not putting Ditka down, but I wonder just how someone could dominate their decade at their position the way Mackey did and then not just fall off the map, but be replaced by one of the men he clearly outplayed over the course of their careers? Perhaps it's because Ditka can retained a high profile as a coach and TV personality, helping his legend grow, or more likely it's because Mackey's work with the union had soured some of the voters on him. We will never know the answer to that one. But Mackey's legacy on the field is as a pioneer of the tight end position, and probably one of the two best of the twentieth century. His legacy off the field is just as impressive, and it remains to be completed.

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