In today’s NFL, you almost need a pass catching tight end to have an effective passing game. The Saints have Jimmy Graham. The 49ers have Vernon Davis. The great Tony Gonzalez helped in elevating Matt Ryan’s game and the Patriots decided two are better than one with their dynamic duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. In the early years of football, tight ends were seen more as an extra lineman who happened to be able to catch (in most cases that is). That is until the Chargers nabbed a kid from Missouri in the first round of the ’79 draft. That kids name? Kellen Boswell Winslow.
The late Don Coryell and his dynamic and explosive “Air Coryell” offense would be the perfect fit for Winslow. With Dan Fouts at quarterback, Charlie Joiner and John “J.J.” Jefferson at wide receiver (and Wes Chandler a few years later), Winslow would be the missing piece that elevated the offense to record breaking heights. Don Coryell once said, “If I have Winslow blocking defensive linemen and not catching passes, then I’m not a very good coach.” Coryell was true to his word, because catch passes is just what Winslow did. Winslow led the NFL in receptions in 1980 and 1981, becoming the first tight end ever to lead the league in receptions in back to back seasons. He also exceeded the 1,000 yards receiving milestone in 3 different seasons, including setting an NFL single season record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,290 yards in the 1980 season. Also in 1981 Winslow set an NFL record with five touchdown receptions in a 55-21 blowout against the rival Oakland Raiders.
Winslow is best known for his performance in what many call the great game ever played. The “Epic in Miami” or “74 Minutes of Courage” as it has been called. The Chargers traveled to Miami and defeated the Dolphins 41-38 in a game that could take up a sixty minute show with highlights. Dan Fouts and backup quarterback Don Dtrock both passed for 400 yards and the highlight of the game may be the hook and lateral touchdown play the Dolphins pulled off right before halftime to cut the lead to 24-17. On a night where several players were immortalized, none shined brighter than Winslow. Suffering from a pinched nerve in his neck and battling dehydration in the brutal South Florida heat, he had a playoff record 13 catches for 166 yards. His finest moment may have came when he blocked a potential game winning field goal at the end of regulation to send the game into overtime. The image of Winslow being helped off the field by two teammates is one of the most recognizable and breathtaking images in NFL history.
Winslow called it quits after the 1987 season due to injuries, but that did not stop the NFL from recognizing his greatness. He was voted to the 75th Anniversary All-NFL Team and has also been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. You can have your Gronks and all the other pass catcthing tight ends around today. If I had my choice, I’m taking #80 ten times out of ten. Every time these guys today sign a multi-million dollar contract they should first thank the man who started it all, Kellen Boswell Winslow.