Today we wrap up this year’s TJB Hall of Fame class with one of the best players in the post Super Bowl win era, Rich Caster. We’ll be back tomorrow to wrap up.
Bent, TheJetsBlog.comSince we came up with the idea for the TJB Hall of Fame, we’ve recognized plenty of players from the 1968-69 Super Bowl winning team and several guys picked up in the late seventies who went on to star for the Jets in the eighties. However, we’ve yet to recognize one player who was one of the Jets stars during that intervening period, so we’re setting that straight today by welcoming Rich Caster to the Class of 2014.
Caster joined the Jets as a wide receiver, before converting to tight end and reaching the pro bowl three times and then ultimately converting back to receiver. In his eight years as a Jet he caught 245 passes, including 36 touchdowns, and averaged 18.1 yards per catch.
While he arrived too late to participate in the Jets’ postseason success of the late sixties and left before the revival in the early eighties, Caster was a major bright spot on those struggling teams of the seventies, with his exciting big-play abilities.
Caster was drafted in the second round out of Jackson State in 1970, as the Jets – who, as Super Bowl champions, had been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs the previous season – looked to bolster their offensive firepower. Caster would initially back up Don Maynard and George Sauer, but Sauer would retire at the end of the 1970 season. While Maynard would go on to play through 1972, he was into his late thirties by then and was well past his best. He only averaged 27 catches per season and totalled just four touchdowns over his last three seasons as a teammate of Caster’s.
As a rookie, Caster flashed his big play potential, averaging over 20 yards per catch on 19 receptions. He caught four passes for 138 yards in a 34-31 loss to the Bills, scoring on a 72-yard pass play from Joe Namath. In 1971, the Jets struggled as Namath was limited to just three starts due to injury but still finished 6-8. Veteran tight end Pete Lammons, in his final season as a Jet, caught just eight passes. Now starting at receiver, Caster caught 26 passes, including six for touchdowns.
With Lammons’ departure, the Jets officially announced that Caster would move to tight end in 1972, promoting Eddie Bell to start across from Maynard. Over the next four seasons, Caster averaged 40 catches and 748 yards per season, earning pro bowl recognition three times. He also scored 25 touchdowns, including a career high 10 in 1972. He also set his career best with 833 yards that year, as he really started to develop some chemistry with Namath. (Five of his nine touchdowns in his first two seasons were thrown to him by backups rather than Namath). While those numbers might not sound too significant by today’s standards, Caster was in the top six for receiving yards three times and in the top 10 for receiving touchdowns three times. That’s for all receivers, not just tight ends.
Caster’s signature game came in that 1972 season as Namath famously out-duelled the legendary Johnny Unitas, throwing for 496 yards and six touchdowns (on just 15 completions!) in a memorable 44-34 win. Caster had 204 receiving yards on the day. No Jet has surpassed 200 receiving yards in a game since then (although both Keyshawn Johnson and Wesley Walker got within six yards).
“People tend to remember either the good or the bad,” Caster said in 1996, “Against the Colts in 1972, I had a 79-yard play and then an 80-yard play with Joe Namath. It was a career game. I didn’t know it was going to be my best. When you’re young, you think you’ll always have them.”
You can see one of those plays here.
While John Mackey is correctly credited with revolutionizing the tight end position, Caster was a big part of the continued rise of the pass catching tight end, a mantle Kellen Winslow Sr. took over from him when he was drafted towards the end of Caster’s career, paving the way for guys like Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham. The Jets correctly realized that Caster’s big play potential would be enhanced if they could create mismatches by moving him to tight end and away from the speedier cornerbacks in the league.
The Jets looked set to return to the postseason that year after a 6-3 start, but they dropped four of their last five to finish 7-7 and miss out once again. There was further disappointment in 1973 as Namath was once again dealing with injuries all year and the Jets ended up 4-10. That was the only time from 1972-1975 that Caster was not a pro bowler, although he was second on the team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches, behind second year man Jerome Barkum, who had taken over from Don Maynard as a starter at wide receiver.
In 1974, Caster was a pro bowler once again as the Jets started 1-7 but this time finished strong, winning six in a row to end up 7-7 again. His 41-yard catch in overtime against the Giants set up the winning score as the winning streak got underway against their cross town rivals. Caster also had two 100-yard games against the Dolphins, the second of which saw him catch both touchdowns in a 17-14 win, including a 45-yard game winner in the fourth quarter.
1975 was Caster’s final pro bowl season, but a rough one for the Jets, who opened up 2-1 with Caster scoring four touchdowns in those three games, but ended up just 3-11. Caster led the Jets with a career high 47 catches, although he didn’t have another touchdown after week three.
In 1976, Namath’s final season, the Jets were 3-11 once again, losing their first four and last four games. Caster did catch 31 passes, but his 12.6 yards per catch average was the lowest of his career and his longest reception was just 41 yards. His only touchdown, a three-yarder from Namath, came in a blowout win over the Bucs.
1977 saw Richard Todd take over as the Jets starting quarterback. Before the season, the Jets announced that they were going to convert Caster back to wide receiver alongside the rookie Walker and move Barkum to tight end. Caster again scored just one touchdown in his final season as a Jet, catching just 10 passes in 10 games. The Jets went 3-11 for the third straight season. Ultimately, Caster would never enjoy a winning season with the Jets, who posted a miserable 37-75 record with him on the roster, the lowest point in team history. Naturally this was in spite of his performances rather than him being to blame at all.
After leaving the Jets, Caster spent three seasons in Houston, where he would finally enjoy some postseason success. The Oilers won four playoff games in two years with him in the line-up, on each occasion falling to Terry Bradshaw’s Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC title game. I don’t think any Jets fan at the time would begrudge him the opportunity to experience that, even though it was bittersweet in the end with Houston falling just shy of making the big game.
Caster’s last great game actually came against the Jets in 1980. He caught six passes for 96 yards and two scores, all numbers he hadn’t surpassed in over five years. The Oilers, led by Ken “The Snake” Stabler, had entered the fourth quarter down 28-0, but ended up taking the game into overtime with Caster catching a 68-yarder to cut the lead to 28-14 and then a shorter touchdown to send the game into overtime. The Jets still won, on a Pat Leahy field goal, but it was fitting that Caster should get his last hurrah in front of his old fanbase.
His final NFL season was 1981, where he spent time with New Orleans and Washington, catching 12 passes in six games.
Perseverance when things are not necessarily going your way is an admirable trait and one which Caster is not alone in possessing among the annals of Jets history. He was an exciting player who forged a successful career with many individual honors and was always at the forefront of any successes the team did have while he was on the roster. It’s a shame that he was unable to experience playoff football until after he left the Jets, but he’ll go down as one of the best players of the seventies and in fact franchise history.
It’s a pleasure to wrap up this year’s class by inducting Rich Caster into the TJB Hall of Fame and recognizing him as a great Jet.
Note: Information contained in this article was compiled from the New York Times archives, the Herald Journal and Bill Chastain’s book “100 things Jets fans should know and do before they die”. Picture credit: Sports Encyclopedia