(Raymond Chester photo courtesy Oakland Raiders)
By Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
It’s unexplainable why one player’s reputation can rise over the years while another’s disappears into the gray mist of memory, but the latter seems to have happened to the great 1970s’ tight end, Raymond Chester.
When Chester came into the NFL in 1970 out of Morgan State he was a revelation. The Oakland Raiders loved to throw the ball, and Chester gave them a downfield weapon at tight end, the likes of which had seldom been seen.
He burst on to the scene with 42 receptions for 556 yards and seven touchdowns that year, winning the Bert Bell Memorial Trophy as the Newspaper Enterprise Association’s NFL Rookie of the Year. Up to that point, there had been few tight ends who posed the kind of receiving threat Chester represented.
Tight ends were still seen as third tackles, more involved in blocking than receiving. Chester was a demon at both, but it was his receiving production that made him stand out. Chester made the Pro Bowl three straight years before the Raiders traded him to the Baltimore Colts in 1973 for former overall No. 1 pick Bubba Smith. At the time of the trade, Colts’ general manager Joe Thomas said, “We had a chance to get possibly the best tight end in all of football, and we had to give up a good football player.’’
Chester was a five-year starter in Baltimore, where use of the tight end was far different than in Oakland. His first season in Baltimore, his receptions dwindled to 18. But after complaining about how he was used that number more than doubled in 1974. Although he would not miss a start in his final four seasons with the Colts, Chester was never happy with how he was used and would prove his point after the Colts shipped him back to the Raiders in 1978 for wide receiver Mike Siani.
With future Hall-of-Famer Dave Casper entrenched at the position, Chester did not start a game that season. But by the following year the two were sharing it with deadly results — with Chester catching 58 passes for 712 yards and eight touchdowns, besting Casper in both receptions and scores.
A year later Casper was shipped to Houston, and Chester became the starter on Oakland’s Super Bowl XV championship team.
When he retired in 1981, Raymond Chester had 364 receptions, good for 5,013 yards and 48 touchdowns. Those numbers pale in comparison to the likes of Tony Gonzalez or Rob Gronkowski because today the tight end often is a third wide receiver. So the best measuring stick are Chester’s peers.
When one stacks him up against Hall of Famers like Casper, John Mackey, Jackie Smith and Charlie Sanders, who were his contemporaries, or even the two Hall of Famers who followed him, Kellen Winslow and Ozzie Newsome, his case strengthens.
Winslow and Newsome were transitional players, the leading edge of the new generation of tight end, and while their numbers are bigger than Chester’s in catches and receiving yardage he scored more often than either.
The fairer comparison comes with the Hall-of-Fame tight ends of the 1960s and 1970s. Chester came into the NFL in 1970 as Mackey and Ditka were coming to the close of their careers. But he was a contemporary of Sanders and Casper and seven years behind Smith, who joined the St. Louis Cardinals in 1963 and lasted 16 seasons. Those three are among the eight tight ends in history to be elected to the Hall of Fame. None of their numbers differ much from Chester’s.
Smith had more catches and receptions but he played four more seasons and his per season average was nearly identical. Chester averaged 30.3 catches, 417.7 yards and four touchdowns. Smith averaged 30 catches, 494 yards and 2.5 scores.
If one looks at Casper and Sanders the numbers are even closer. Chester had more catches than Sanders (336), more yards (5,013 to 4,817) and more touchdowns (48 to 31). Casper had 14 more catches (378), 203 more yards (5,216) and four more scores (52). In essence, the three were identical in every area with Chester exceeding Sanders and only a shade behind Casper.
The wildcard in those comparisons are his two “lost’’ seasons, his first in Baltimore in 1973 (18 receptions, 181 yards and one TD) and his return to Oakland in 1978 when he did not start a game and caught only 13 passes for 146 yards and two scores. His performances in 1974-1977 in Baltimore and 1979 and 1980 in Oakland make clear the “drop-off’’ was more a failure of his offense than him.
If one simply takes his career average, which he exceeded every year other than 1973 and 1978, and add the difference between that and his level of production those two seasons, his numbers exceed Casper and Sanders, the Hall-of-Fame tight ends of the 1970s.
Such are the vagaries of life in the NFL. But when you step back and look at Raymond Chester’s production it’s difficult to argue against his own assessment of his career.
“No one can dispute I was one of the top three players at my position in my era,’’ he once said. “No one can dispute that.’’
No, they cannot.