Tight ends become big-time offensive asset
Vail, CO Colorado
DIRVING, Texas – Before Tony Romo had Jason Witten, before Troy Aikman had Jay Novacek, the Roger Staubach-led Dallas Cowboys had a different breed of tight end.
“A Western Union guy,” then-star Billie Joe DuPree recalled. His role: “A little messenger, run plays in from the sideline to Roger.”
The Cowboys were no exception, either. Throughout the NFL, tight ends used to be blockers who could catch a little or pass-catchers who could block a little. Rare was the guy big enough to hold his own as a blocker and nimble enough to be part of the passing game.
My, how things have changed.
The position has evolved so much that we’re in the midst of a revolution. Rare is the team that doesn’t have a Witten or a Jeremy Shockey, an Antonio Gates or a Tony Gonzalez. And, quite often, woe is the offense that’s missing one of these hybrid studs.
“You got guys who are 6-foot-5 or 6-4 who can run a 4.5 and put them at tight end with good ball skills and you’ve got a pretty good tight end,” said one of the best, Cleveland’s Kellen Winslow, whose dad is widely considered the standard by which all tight ends are judged ” apologies to Mike Ditka and John Mackey. “Every team is trying to find those guys because it’s a mismatch.”
The prototype tight end these days is too big to be covered by a defensive back and too fast for a linebacker. His hands are as reliable, if not more, than the best receivers.
As for blocking, well, you can’t have everything. Guys are still labeled either blocking tight ends or receiving tight ends, but the gap between them has narrowed. Besides, size alone makes receiving TEs an obstacle and most take some pride in blocking so they can be considered all-around players.
Such requirements border on freak-of-nature status, yet the NFL rosters are stocked with them ” so much that we’re in the midst of a golden age for tight ends, with 2007 easily the Year of the TE.
Witten recently tied the tight-end record for catches in a game with 15 and he has 94 receptions this season, giving him a shot at Gonzalez’s single-season record of 102. Yet he’s not the only one who might break it. Gonzalez himself is at 92.
Even if Gonzalez only makes it 95, that’d be enough to put him No. 1 on the career list for tight ends, ahead of Shannon Sharpe’s 815. He’s already tops in touchdowns with 66.
Should Witten and Gonzalez hit 100, it would be the first time in NFL history two tight ends crack the mark in the same season. Heck, it’s only happened once, period.
This also might be the first season with four tight ends gaining more than 1,000 yards. Witten, Gonzalez and Winslow already have done it, and Gates is 78 yards away.
The position isn’t merely top-heavy with stars.
As a group, NFL tight ends have 1,959 catches, 20,789 yards and 172 touchdowns this season, according to Stats LLC. With one game left, they’ve crushed the records for receptions and touchdowns, each set within the last two years, and are 19 yards from breaking the yardage mark that’s stood since 1984.
For a comparison, go back to 2002, when the Houston Texans made the NFL a 32-team league. That season, tight ends combined for 1,678 catches, 17,534 yards and 134 TDs. That’s roughly 15 percent fewer catches and yards and 22 percent fewer TDs ” and it was only five years ago.
“A lot of the bigger athletes at that size, we seemed to not have there for a while,” said Cowboys coach Wade Phillips, in his 31st NFL season. “Now, it seems like were getting them back.”
Gonzalez is the pioneer of this new era, followed by a wave of guys who already are between 25th and 40th on the career TE receptions list, yet are still in their prime: Shockey, Witten, Baltimore’s Todd Heap and Gates.
The list of up-and-comers includes Winslow, Pro Bowler Chris Cooley of Washington, Indianapolis’ Dallas Clark and Pittsburgh’s Heath Miller. Another guy probably known only to fantasy football players is Houston’s Owen Daniels; he has more catches and yards than Cooley.
The tight end revolution isn’t for every team, though. Look at Cincinnati, where Reggie Kelly leads tight ends with just 18 catches.
St. Louis and Oakland are lagging, too, but at least tried getting into the mix.
The Rams signed Randy McMichael from Miami after he averaged 65 catches the last three years, but injuries that wiped out their line forced them to use McMichael mostly as a blocker. The Raiders spent a second-round pick on Zach Miller and have started him every game, but he’s managed only 36 catches.
Notice something else those teams have in common? None is going to the playoffs.
Now look at those that are.
Of the 10 that have clinched a spot, four have a tight end among their top two in receptions or yards. It’ll be 6-for-12 if Cleveland (Winslow) and Washington (Cooley) make it as wild cards.
“The teams that have the most productive passing games and are most wide-open are the most successful,” said Redskins offensive guru Al Saunders, who has coached the original Kellen Winslow, Gonzalez and now Cooley.
“When you have somebody that can be a part of the running game as well as the passing game and be efficient, now you add more dimension to your offense. And I’ve always maintained that an offense that’s unpredictable is an offense that has an opportunity for great success.”
So, how did this happen? How did the tight end go from afterthought to vital piece?
The complicated answer involves two trends: offenses throwing more and defenses using the “Cover 2” scheme, which puts more defenders deep, leaving open the middle and underneath routes where tight ends flourish.
Another factor is the popularity of the NFL.
In this era of kids picking one sport at an early age and sticking with it, more talented big guys are opting for football over basketball or baseball. Seeing tight ends flourish further feeds the cycle. Plus, there are simply more guys with freakish combinations of size and speed, just like there are more 300-pound linemen than there used to be.
The roots of this TE revolution can be found in recent draft history. Again, the lists show both quality and quantity.
Quality comes in terms of first-round picks: 13 since 2000 after only 15 from 1980-99. Things were so bad in those years that there wasn’t a single tight end taken in the first two rounds of the 1987 draft ” and that was an improvement from the previous year, when none went in the first three rounds.
The shallowest talent pool was 1980, when only six tight ends were taken in the entire 12-round draft. There were 16 tight ends taken in the seven-round drafts of 2004 and ’06, and 23 in ’02.
“I remember when I first came into the league there weren’t many receiving tight ends at all,” said Gonzalez, the 13th overall pick in 1997. “Now you look around, it seems like every team has one. Maybe they’re not going out there catching 70, 80 balls like me, Antonio and Jason and guys like that. But they all have the guys who run fast and are receiver types. That’s the evolution of the position.”
But Gonzalez has a quibble with the way things are going. He’s seeing too many guys who are called tight ends but are really just receivers considering how seldom they block.
“I’m of the old school,” he said. “It’s supposed to be a combination.”
Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher is a big advocate of splitting the job. Part of his reasoning is supply and demand.
“The perfect world is a guy that runs 4.4 who can block,” Fisher said. “Those guys are kind of hard to find. Most of them are in the NBA.”
Cooley acknowledges he’s “not an overpowering blocker,” but he works hard at it and does his best. Witten isn’t quite the caliber of blocker that he is a receiver, but no one should question his toughness after the play he made against Philadelphia earlier this year.
After catching a pass over the middle, Witten absorbed a blow that pried off his helmet, then turned upfield for a 53-yard gain ” the longest of his career. He also came away with a bloodied nose and a highlight for the ages.
Long-ago predecessor Billy Joe DuPree had to like that. Staubach’s “messenger” was a three-time Pro Bowler in the 1970s, including a season when he caught only 28 passes.
How would he do in today’s pass-happy game?
“If I had an opportunity to do that,” he said, laughing, “I’m afraid they wouldn’t have enough money in the bank to afford my services.”
AP Sports Writers Tim Booth, Dave Campbell, Josh Dubow, R.B. Fallstrom, Stephen Hawkins, Joe Kay, Doug Tucker, Teresa Walker, Steve Wine, Tom Withers and Joseph White, and Associated Press Writers John McFarland, Travis Reed contributed to this story.