By: Chris Dagonas
The tight end position is perhaps one of the most analyzed in the NFL, with some even gaining attention for their off-field activities (OK, last Aaron Hernandez reference, I swear). But, many casual fans are unaware of the difference between tight ends and other offensive players, and much like offensive linemen, their hard work often goes unnoticed or undetected (unless they’re making wide-open touchdown catches). Despite the public’s slow move towards recognition, clever teams have been using multi-talented pass-catching tight ends for years.
In the 1950s, the tight end position was designed mainly for blocking, and filled by players who more closely resembled offensive linemen than receivers. They had clunky hands, could hardly run for more than 5 seconds, and lacked the agility to perform any route-running moves beyond simple slants and drags.
This began to change in the 1960s, with the NFL’s move away from single-platoon to double-platoon rosters. Single-platoon meant that players had to play on both offense and defense, much like your recreational flag-football team. Double-platoon rosters allowed for offensive specialists, and big, strong, blockers with mediocre receiving skills began to be seen as more useful. This was the era of John Mackey and Mike Ditka, among others, who were more athletic than their predecessors, and could at least be used as somewhat reliable pass-catchers. The Bears even won the 1963 NFL championship, behind Ditka’s 59 receptions and 8 touchdowns, during an era when running plays were used far more often than passing plays.
If you’ll forgive a little more historical background, Kellen Winslow is looked back upon as the league’s first ‘modern’ tight end. He played in the 1980s and possessed all of the blocking and physicality required of a lineman, combined with the speed, athleticism and catching ability of the best receivers of his day. Rather than simply running slants and drags, Winslow expanded the tight end playbook by including longer patterns like posts (check out player E in this play). Winslow’s athleticism also allowed him to play further away from the line, opening up more space and creating mismatches against shorter cornerbacks and slower linebackers.
These days, the very best teams often have elite options at the tight end positions, while some of those same teams can get away with average running backs (I’m looking at you, Green Bay). This is not coincidental. Having an athletic, fast, tall receiving option, being guarded by linebackers who are often poor pass defenders, creates ideal match-ups for quarterbacks and offensive coordinators.
So what, exactly, does a tight end do? How does their job differ from that of a wide receiver? And who does it the best?
On running plays, a tight end has the unenviable task of blocking onrushing linebackers and defensive ends to create space for his running back. I touched on this with our article about guards from a few weeks back; the idea is very much the same.
Except a tight end only spends about half of his time blocking for running backs. The other half is spent running precise routes through the middle of the field – that section between the numbers where all manner of hard-hitting safeties and linebackers lurk. As the tallest receiving option on the team, usually tight ends are also useful targets in the end zone, as their height and long arms, as well as wide bodies, allow them to catch more throws than their shorter receiver teammates.
On some plays, a tight end actually has to perform both duties. Just let that sink in. Block a 260-pound linebacker for a couple of seconds, then get loose and run a short route and get open and don’t drop the ball and also you only have 4 seconds to do all of that. On plays like this, each arm movement, each step, each split-second matters.
Sunday afternoon’s Denver Broncos-Dallas Cowboys 51-48 instant classic featured two of the best tight end performances you’re likely to see all year: The Cowboys’ Jason Witten vs. the Broncos’ Julius Thomas. Witten earned a terrific 122 yards with a touchdown, while Thomas upstaged him with 121 yards and two touchdowns. Best of all, all three of their touchdowns occurred on uniquely different plays.
On Witten’s touchdown, quarterback Tony Romo bought time by dancing around the pocket, while Witten ran his original route to no success. Seeing that Romo was still standing and still holding the ball, Witten crossed the width of the field and eventually escaped the coverage and caught the touchdown pass. This is a play typical of an athletic slot receiver or one of those ‘built-to-play-wide-receiver’ guys like Calvin Johnson or AJ Green, not what you usually see from a tight end.
Thomas’ first touchdown, on the other hand, is your standard tight end slant play, sealed with a perfect pass from Peyton Manning. You can see in the second video that Thomas is utilized as a running back in the backfield at the start of the play, and a sneaky shovel pass from Peyton creates acres of space for Thomas to waltz through. (Manning was at his sneaky best on Sunday, as seen from this one-yard running play).
On the other hand, the Packers’ Jermichael Finley continues to receive praise from various media sources, while proving to consistently be one of the league’s most nefarious pass-droppers. It’s gotten so bad that Finley has promised to donate money to charity for each dropped pass he records this season. Seriously.
Finley’s butter fingers notwithstanding, we are living in the golden age of the tight end position. Through five weeks this season, the New Orleans Saints’ Jimmy Graham leads all players in receiving yards (593), and sits in a three-way tie for second in touchdown receptions (6). While most rate Graham as the league’s best, there is a fair number of challengers, including Thomas and Witten, the 49ers’ Vernon Davis, and Cleveland rookie Jordan Cameron. Meanwhile, veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez is set to retire after this season, having just passed Indianapolis Colts legend (and West Philadelphia’s Avon Barksdale) Marvin Harrison on Monday night to reach sixth on the NFL’s all-time receiving yards list, easily surpassing all other tight ends, for now.
The importance of the tight end in modern NFL passing-friendly offenses can not be overstated. The best offensive units often feature tight ends even more prominently than all-star running backs or wide receivers. All hail the king of offensive versatility, the modern tight end.