Twenty-four touchdowns were scored in the NFL's conference semifinals last weekend. Nine of the 24 were scored by players we erroneously call tight ends. Same number as wide receivers.
49er tight end Vernon Davis scored the first and last touchdown in a 36-32 victory over the Saints, about as good of a football game as you'll ever behold. New Orleans' Jimmy Graham had two touchdown catches himself. Both tight ends had more than 100 yards receiving.
And neither was the tight end star of the weekend. The Patriots' Rob Gronkowski, who plays just like his name sounds, big and mean, had 10 catches, 145 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-10 rout of Denver.
Welcome to the newest gridiron trend. Tight ends as weapons. Tight ends as difference-makers. Tight ends as more than just a safety valve.
“I think it's a tough thing for defenses to handle,” said NFL tight end Billy Bajema, who played at OSU and Westmoore High School. “A lot of teams, if they've got a tight end they feel like can be a good weapon, they're using ‘em.”
Bajema is not one of the new-breed tight ends. Bajema is a 259-pound blocking specialist; he has 38 career catches in seven seasons with the 49ers (2005-08) and Rams (2009-11).
But more and more, his tight end brothers are being called on to catch, not block.
“That's the way the game has evolved, especially in the NFL,” said OSU offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who spent 2007-10 as the receivers coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. “More of an athletic, receiving tight end. Then try to hold his own on blocking the edge.”
The game has changed on the defensive side, too. Those players on the edge, rush ends and outside linebackers, are not 300-pound monsters. They are athletic guys themselves.
“Sometimes,” said Monken, “the mismatch is not as much as you think.”
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The mismatch comes when the ball is in the air. Gronkowski is the poster boy for the new-fad tight end: 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, 4.65 speed in the 40-yard dash. Hands that seem bigger than a football helmet.
Gronkowski had 90 catches in the regular season, for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns.
But Gronkowski is not a pioneer. The NFL long has had tight ends who were primo weapons. Mike Ditka and John Mackey in the ‘60s, Charlie Sanders and Dave Casper in the ‘70s, Kellen Winslow and Ozzie Newsome in the ‘80s, Shannon Sharpe and Keith Jackson in the ‘90s, Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates in the 2000s.
“You can go way back with tight ends,” said former OSU head coach Pat Jones, who coached tight ends with the Miami Dolphins from 1996-2003. “Keith (Jackson) was as much as a weapon as these guys.” For reference, remember Jackson's vaunted end-arounds playing for Barry Switzer's Sooners.
But the difference is, the Patriots have two tight end weapons. Aaron Hernandez, at 6-1, 245, not quite the behemoth as Gronkowski, has 79 catches for 910 yards and seven touchdowns. In the playoff win over Denver, the Patriots even used Hernandez in the backfield; he led New England with 61 yards rushing on five carries.
“What they're doing that's so unique,” Jones said, “they've got so many things going with Gronkowski, Hernandez, two wideouts and one back. You really get some interesting stuff there.”
The Patriots will play one of the tight ends tight with the other in the slot or split out. Or both split out. Or both in the slot. Or any combination thereof, with one going in motion.
“People don't know how to match up with ‘em,” Jones said. “Do you put a big safety on one of ‘em? Then you split the guy out, and he can outrun you. Or do you put a smaller corner on him, and they line him up in a tight look, and they outmuscle you.”