— Twenty-five years ago, tight ends were going extinct.
The run-‘n’-shoot offense provided roster space for eight wide receivers and zero tight ends. The West Coast Offense offered a niche as a king-sized possession receiver, but as specialization and substitution increased, the tight end became a threatened species, if not an endangered one.
Gradually, tight ends evolved into the modern Tony Gonzalez-Jason Witten breed: beefed up slot receivers for whom blocking is a nights-and-weekends job. These latter-day of tight ends are often the best overall athletes on the field, but that makes sense -- when a species is pressured, only the fittest survive.
Tight ends are still evolving. Given how athletically gifted they are, it’s not surprising that the 49ers and Patriots are finding new roles for players like Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker, Aaron Hernandez, and Rob Gronkowski.
Just when you think the Patriots tight ends are old news, they turn into running backs. Just when you think you have Davis figured out (Greek statue come to life, though sometimes with the hands to match), he proves that he is as dangerous a deep threat as any of the wide receivers left in the playoffs.
If these guys represent the next stage -- Version 4.0 -- in the metamorphosis of the tight end, we should get a better handle on what they are doing. The Super Bowl could hinge on something as unlikely as the tight end around, a play a fan could go a decade without seeing before this season.
The running threat
Just how unusual is it for a tight end to take a handoff? The top five active reception leaders among tight ends – Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Antonio Gates, Jeremy Shockey, and Todd Heap -- have combined for 3,473 receptions but just 11 running plays. So rushing accounts for about 0.3 percent of a tight end’s production, though even that number is skewed by broken plays, fake punts, and other odds and ends that count as “runs” in the official stats.
Greats like Witten, Gates, and Kellen Winslow the First went their whole careers without a carry.
It wasn’t always that way. The “tight end around” was a playbook standard through the 1960s, and as recently as the late 1970s, a great tight end like Ozzie Newsome might take a few handoffs per season as a fullback or on a reverse. Tight end handoffs disappeared by the early 1980s, but the Patriots and Niners are at the forefront of a revolution in tight end running.
Jim Harbaugh is determined to revive the tight end around, no matter the costs. Davis and Walker combined for five carries this season, all of them outside runs. Some of those runs came at unusual times, like in the red zone and third-and-long. Most, however, were unsuccessful. Walker gained 14 yards on one end-around, but the other four plays lost yardage. Still, Harbaugh was calling Walker’s number as late as Week 14, and the man that gave us the Alex Smith shotgun sweep for a touchdown against the Saints will do anything to diversify his running game.
The Patriots don’t run many tight-end arounds. Instead, Hernandez lines up in the backfield and takes old-fashioned handoffs. Hernandez rushed six times for 45 yards in the regular season and added five rushes for 61 yards on Saturday against the Broncos. Gronkowski is also credited with a two-yard touchdown rush, but that was more of a short screen pass that happened to be travel backward in the air.
There is nothing new about lining tight ends up in the backfield on passing downs, but they are usually there for pass protection, not as rushing threats. For the Patriots, Hernandez’s rushing is just one more advantage for their no-huddle offense; even if the running backs are split wide or on the sideline, defenders cannot ignore the possibility of a handoff.
But really, no team needs an extra reason to get the ball into the hands of athletes like Davis, Walker, Hernandez and Gronkowski. They are almost as fast as wide receivers and bigger and stronger than most running backs. Tall ball carriers are at a disadvantage when running between the tackles because they expose the football (and the ribs) when plunging into the line. That is less of a problem on the edge, and when a 250-pounder like Hernandez reaches the sideline – where only 190-pound cornerbacks are available to tackle him – good things can happen for an offense.
The deep threat
Tight ends have always run deep routes; the “seamer” is an important part of every playbook. The next-gen tight ends are going a step further. Instead of settling for a role as occasional deep threats, they are on their way to becoming their teams’ primary deep threats.
Table 1 shows just how often the Patriots and Niners tight ends were targeted for deep passes (more than 15 yards downfield in the air).
Gronkowski and Hernandez are targeted about three times per game on deep passes. Davis and Welker are targeted less frequently, but the Niners do not pass nearly as often as the Patriots. As a percentage, their role in the long passing game is similar to the one Gronkowski and Hernandez play, and their “long passes” are actually longer than the Patriots’ bombs.
For comparison’s sake, I added Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, another tight end tandem that plays a major role in the deep passing game. The Lions’ duo is targeted nearly as often as the Davis and Walker, but again, the Lions pass much more often than the Niners do. Davis and Walker combined for 39.4 percent of the Niners' deep passing attempts. Scheffler and Pettigrew accounted for just 20 percent of the Lions' deep passing. Hernandez and Gronkowski account for 38 percent of the Patriots' deep passing.
Pettigrew and Scheffler are fine players, but they are Version 3.0 tight ends. Version 4.0 models are full partners in all facets of the passing attack.
The next step
The most interesting thing about the Patriots and Niners tight end tandems is that they are tandems: both teams make extensive use of two tight-end attacks. The Lions and Panthers are also committed to the two tight end package as one of their base offensive sets.
Sure, these tight ends motion into the slot, split wide, or line up at fullback. But they are recognizable as tight ends. If you told a coach from 1990 (when even the Redskins had given up their two tight-end formation for the three-receiver “posse”) that some of the most successful, explosive offenses in the league would be built around tight end passing, he would have sent four 5-foot-9 Smurf receivers to chase you and hit you as hard as they could (not very).
The old, lumbering tight end is not quite extinct, as the Giants' Jake Ballard will prove on Sunday. But defenses must brace for a new breed of player that can not only work the slot and seam like Gonzo and Witten, but take handoffs, run the full route tree, and stay on the field on every situation. And block. Players like Walker have not forgotten that part of their job description.
So if you are watching a Saints game three years from now and see Jimmy Graham as a Wildcat quarterback, or if Jermichael Finley starts lining up in the I-formation for the Packers next year, remember how it all started.
It’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s evolution, baby.