Second down and 11 at the New Orleans 17 yard line, Matty Ice tossed a frozen rope into empty space in the direction of one Tony Gonzalez. As the ball came down in the back of the end zone, so did the 16 year veteran with a signature acrobatic diving leaner catch for a touchdown. It was number 102 in his long and impressive career, and won’t be the last.
Since the days of John Mackey, the tight end position has been slowly changing into more of an offensive weapon than a support. Mackey blew everyone away with his ability to catch the ball for the Baltimore Colts as a pass-heavy Unitas offense began giving him quite a few looks in a league where tight ends were glorified lineman. Mackey hauled in 38 touchdowns in his career in an era where passing for 150 yards was a good day. Professional football in the 60s saw this as a fluke, and a product of the Baltimore offense and tight ends continued to be a wide tackle.
One team that saw the tight end as an opportunity to have an open receiver rather than an extra blocker was the Chicago Bears. They were blessed with a terrifying run blocking animal with soft paws named Mike Ditka.
“Who would win in a fight? A hurricane or Ditka?”
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Linebackers, defensive ends and defensive backs alike hated seeing Iron Mike’s #89 headed their way for two reasons. They were either going to enter a battle they would likely lose and end up forcibly on their back, or they would get burned as the football was suddenly in the air and Ditka was suddenly in the end zone. Ditka saw a lot of success, being a tight end that defenders loathed getting close with yet were expected to pass defend.
The learning curve for NFL offenses was getting shorter, as more people saw the upside of utilizing their tight ends in the passing game. In the late 1970s along came one Kellen Winslow. As part of the San Diego Chargers’ high-flying offense, Winslow helped Dan Fouts and company appear in the postseason multiple times. In one playoff game against the Dolphins, Winslow posted 166 yards and 3 touchdowns despite being sick and injured and even blocked the would be game-tying field goal to end the game. Winslow played with a blend of tenacity and finesse that landed him in the Hall of Fame and began to change some minds about the importance of the tight end position.
By the 1990s, tight ends were once again being overshadowed by the stand out wide receiver talent of the time. Tight ends were often either liabilities in the blocking game with good receiving talent, or vica versa. When the Chiefs drafted Tony Gonzalez in 1997, he quickly became their number one receiving threat, despite lining up inside of Derrick Alexander, Joe Horn, and Andre Rison. Gonzalez put up great numbers in the receiving game, getting the most looks and being the most efficient, yet still displayed the blocking technique and lead block knowhow to spark the running game.
The role of the tight end was changing, as having a sure-handed tight end was becoming more and more of necessity versus a luxury. Gonzalez played alongside such greats as Frank Wychek, Todd Heap, and Shannon Sharpe as some teams leading receivers were lined up snug to their tackles.
Today the role of the tight end has been given yet another makeover, as a few physical freaks have entered the league. The evil genius that is Bill Belichick drafted not one but two of these monster tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. As tight ends are often guarded by linebackers or even defensive ends, their speed can be a deadly weapon in getting open and creating space. Gronkowski ran a 4.68 40 yard dash, and Hernandez a 4.64. Belichick loves to exploit matchups, turning a game against a team into a play against one man. When a safety is injured Belichick orders up a pass deep over the middle, when a defensive tackle is hurt, he sends a run right up the gut. Brady and Belichick change plays around get these matchups, particularly a shorter and slower linebacker on these giant and speedy targets.
More and more teams are adapting this into their scheme. Jimmy Graham has experienced this type of success in New Orleans, Jason Witten, though not very speedy uses more of the Antonio Gates approach and posts up on linebackers with Dallas. Dustin Keller, and Vernon Davis use their blocking abilities to create space in their linebacker matchups. People are finally catching on league-wide. Tight ends will likely be taken higher and higher on draft boards for years to come. The way offense is played itself will change as a result of tight ends seeing the ball more and more, and therefore defense will change with it. We already see nickel and dime subs in way more than we used to. The position has evolved, tight ends are no longer slightly taller tackles on the line of scrimmage. They are bigger, faster, and stronger than they ever were, run crisper routes, and are required to have hands as soft as the most ego-centric of wide outs. The path has been paved by legends before them, by offensive masterminds, and an ever-changing game of football.
“Ditka versus the entire Holy Army of Angels”
“Cherubim or Seraphim?”
“Ditka 72, Angel army 14”