It’s time for a little history lesson at the tight-end position.
When we see the statistics Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jason Witten put up in the last decade, there is a rush to enshrine them in Canton and stamp them as the measuring sticks for the position. And that would be fine if the measuring stick for tight ends was running pass routes.
But once up a time the measuring stick was blocking defensive ends and linebackers.
Throughout the 1950s, NFL offenses featured right and left ends. But in the early 1960s, the positions became more defined with the evolvement of a “split” end and a “tight” end. The split end always lined up on the flank and caught passes. The tight end always lined up along the interior and blocked for the running game.
Tight ends were considered a third offensive tackle and position standard-bearers Jim Gibbons, Ron Kramer, Jim Mutscheller and Monte Stickles excelled at their blocking. But Mike Ditka came along in 1961 and showed the NFL that tight ends could be factors in the passing game as well as the run game. Ditka was a superb blocker – but his 56-catch, 1,076-yard, 12-touchdown rookie season for the Chicago Bears opened some eyes.
Then John Mackey came along in 1963. Another quality blocker, Mackey could also stretch the field with his speed. He caught 35 passes as a rookie with the Baltimore Colts, averaging 20.7 yards per grab with seven touchdowns.
Mackey was voted the tight end on the 1960s’ NFL all-decade team and also to the league’s 50th anniversary team. Ditka was elected to the league’s 75th anniversary team. But one other tight end from that era has been lost in the shuffle.
Fred Arbanas was named to the all-time All-AFL team for his play with the Kansas City Chiefs. Yet his name has never entered the Hall-of-Fame discussion. He has never even appeared on any preliminary list of candidates, much less the list of semifinalists or finalists.
Arbanas was a better, more deserving player than that.
He was a key blocking element on the most successful team in AFL history. The franchise – first as the Dallas Texans, then the Kansas City Chiefs – won more games (87) and more championships (three) than any other AFL team. The Chiefs appeared in the very first Super Bowl and then won the final game ever played by an AFL franchise – Super Bowl IV against the Minnesota Vikings.
The Chiefs finished in the Top 3 in the AFL in rushing all eight of the seasons Arbanas lined up as their tight end. If you included NFL teams, the Chiefs finished in the Top 3 in rushing in all of professional football three times.
The NFL teams that rivaled the Kansas City statistics during the decade – Chicago, Cleveland and Green Bay – all featured Hall-of-Fame backs: Gale Sayers with the Bears, Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly with the Browns and Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung with the Packers.
The Chiefs had no such Hall-of-Fame brigade. Abner Haynes, Curtis McClinton, Mike Garrett and Robert Holmes were the primary ball carriers during the AFL era. Kansas City succeeded on the ground with its blocking and scheme. The strength of that offense was up front. Tackle Jim Tyrer and guard Ed Budde joined Arbanas on the all-time All-AFL team.
And Arbanas brought NFL ability to the table. He was a second-round draft pick by the St. Louis Cardinals out of Michigan State in 1961, the 22nd overall selection. But he opted to sign with the AFL Texans, who made him a seventh-round draft choice, but missed his rookie season with a ruptured disk in his back.
In addition to his blocking, Arbanas brought a terrific set of hands to the Chiefs. In his first three seasons, he caught 97 passes and scored touchdowns on 20.6 percent of them (20). He averaged 15.6 yards per catch and enjoyed his best season in 1964 when he caught eight touchdown passes and averaged 20.2 yards per catch.
He was to the AFL what Mackey was to the NFL.
But Arbanas was mugged by two men in Kansas City in late December of 1964 and lost the sight of his right eye. Although he didn’t miss a game in his first eight seasons, Arbanas was never the same offensive weapon after that. He never caught more than 24 passes in his final six seasons and would score only 14 more touchdowns in his career.
But Arbanas remained a stout blocker. He was again voted the first-team All-AFL tight end in 1965 and went to two more AFL All-Star games in his career. But he injured his knee in 1970, the first year of the merged leagues, and missed the final eight games that season. And for the first time in a decade, the Chiefs tumbled out of the Top 3 in rushing, sinking to ninth in the 26-team league.
Arbanas was instrumental in the greatest victory in franchise history, that Super Bowl IV upset of the Vikings. Kansas City was a two-touchdown underdog against the NFL champions and their vaunted Purple People Eaters defense that featured Hall-of-Famers Carl Eller and Alan Page on the defensive line.
“I thought I could block their linebackers and ends,” Arbanas told the Talk of Fame Network. “Jim Tyrer was probably the best offensive tackle in football, so I knew he could do the job. Ed Budde was one of the best guards in football, so I knew he could do the job. We had a helluva team, and we knew it. We felt very confident we could beat them.”
And the Chiefs did, running the ball down Minnesota’s throat. Kansas City rushed 42 times for 151 yards, winning 23-7 with Hall-of-Fame quarterback Len Dawson throwing only 17 passes.
There were 22 position players named to the all-time All-AFL team. Only nine of them have been enshrined in Canton. Among the omissions are Arbanas, Budde, and Tyrer, three of the best blockers at their positions of the AFL era. All deserved a better fate.
A tight end who could block may not be important in the eyes of the Hall-of-Fame selection committee now. But it was paramount in the 1960s. And there were few better than Arbanas.