They're Big, They're Fast, They're Dirty: The Age of Tight End
In 2004, George Bush won his second term as President, ushering in an uber-aggressive foreign policy. The Red Sox won their first World Series in a billion years. The world, it appeared, was changing.
Then something even stranger happened: tight ends became playmakers in the NFL. At first, it was deemed a curiosity rather than an evolution. But in the decade since, this change became as permanent as the United States presence in Afghanistan. They were there to stay.
Throughout NFL history, gaudy performances tended to be isolated to a few tight ends each generation. Mike Ditka, Jackie Smith and John Mackey represented the trailblazers in the 1960’s. They gave way to players in the 1980’s like Kellen Winslow — who led the league in receptions back-to-back years in 1980 and 1981 — Todd Christensen — who pulled the same feat in two seasons as well, in 1983 and 1986 — and Ozzie Newsome.
Then, as often does with the cyclical nature of the NFL, the pipeline seemed to dry up. Colleges were running fewer systems predicated on tight ends that could catch passes, opting instead to add an extra wide receiver and play the spread. Alternatively, other colleges that weren't spreading the field were churning up the grass on the ground running the ball, which required the traditional blocking tight end.
On the pro level, the West Coast offence happened. Suddenly, with an influx of talent at the receiver spot coming down the pipeline, the receiver position evolved to be terrifyingly prolific. The quick, timed passing game de-emphasized the need for an in-line pass catcher other than to work underneath routes and occasionally stretch the seam. If you had a receiving tight end, they were a big body with good hands like Brent Jones or Mark Bavarro.
Into the 1990’s — outside of Shannon Sharpe — the position continued to be one that failed to nurture prolific playmakers. Names like Frank Wychek and Ben Coates were marquee. But they weren't the weapons that their brethren at wide receiver and runningback were.
This was reflected in the numbers, as well. At the turn of the century, an elite receiving season by a tight end was 60 catches, maybe 700 yards and a handful of touchdowns. In such a case, that stat line was one player and no one else. Then, just as a second decade was coming to a close, 2004 changed everything.
In 2004, Tony Gonzalez became the first tight end in 18 years to lead the league in receptions. What’s more, four tight ends topped 80 catches. In recent history, only Gonzalez had achieved such a feat, doing so in 2000. What’s even more, it signaled the first time there were more than five players with 60 receptions. Most pundits rightly assumed Gonzalez was a transcendent talent, but wrongly ignored that he was a harbinger of things to come.
The seed had been planted. Offensive coaches searching for that coveted mismatch found a new piece to fiddle with (conversely, the traditional tight end model was being instigated at another position, runningback, where teams were beginning to employ two or three backs of varying styles such as speedster, bruiser, blocker). A good tight end could outrun a linebacker or muscle-out a safety in a way a receiver couldn't. As important, they effected the run game if they lined up at a traditional receiver spot split wide or in the slot, creating a blocking mismatch.
Interestingly, this era became one where offensive coaches found what they wanted and used tight ends in a manner already utilized at one time in history, but to greater effectiveness. Antonio Gates became the dynamic quasi-wide receiver tight end for San Diego as Winslow had been in the 1980's and briefly, Winslow's son, Kellen Winslow Jr. did the same in Cleveland, as did Vernon Davis in San Francisco. Jason Witten, Owen Daniels and Heath Miller grew to epitomize the ideal of a do-everything tight end desired throughout the 60's, 70's and 80's. Dallas Clark and Chris Cooley were the ideal H-back, movement tight end made most famous by Sharpe in Denver.
It was a golden age for tight ends. The position was averaging 15.8 players picked in the draft, a period which saw back-to-back years where 20 tightends were taken in 2009 and 2010.
This gave way to a new era. In 2010, Bill Belichek drafted Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and built his entire offense around their talents. They could be on the field at the same time, line up in any receiver position and create a mismatch in both the passing game and running game. Meanwhile, Sean Payton got Jimmy Graham and turned him into a chess piece, a Queen who could threaten from anywhere on the board. Tight ends became top targets in the passing game, schematically more important than any position.
The athletes of modern day — first the Gonzalez's then the Gates's and Witten's and now the Gronkowski’s, Martellus Bennett’s, and Graham’s — are essentially power forwards. They are players who have more physical characteristics in common with a defensive end than a wide receiver, stabbing passes from the air with hands the size of dinner plates. The sheer spectacle of tight end-play now is worlds from what it once was.
At its best, the NFL displays graceful speed with incredible power like no other sport. Thus, in football, while most positions tend to emphasize speed or power, the tight ends of today are the exception: they combine speed and power better than any position.
Teams employ their tight ends in such a terrifying variety of ways it's impossible to overstate just how much they have evolved the game. As teams are passing more than ever, can that only be attributed to the shift in pass interference calls and grassroots training for young QB's and receivers? On the pro level, it's the tight end who is King.
Tight ends now sit on the throne.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb @NPBRoadcaster