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.”
* * *
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.”
New England didn't invent the two tight end concept. In fact, Bajema estimates that while he played for the 49ers and Rams, both used two tight ends 50 percent of the time.
Jones pointed out that OU's remarkable 2008 offensive explosiveness was due in part to the use of two tight ends – Jermaine Gresham (who with the Bengals is in line to reach weapon status among tight ends) and Brody Eldridge (now an Indianapolis Colts tight end).
“You line up, all of a sudden, you make Gresham a wideout,” Jones said. “Indy does some of that with Dallas Clark. New England, they've expanded it even more.”
* * *
Time was, every end was a tight end. Four players in the backfield, with two ends, both lined up right next to the tackle.
Don Hutson and Bill Hewitt were early-day end stars. At OU, Jim Owens and Max Boydston were all-American ends for Bud Wilkinson. At OSU, Neill Armstrong was an all-American end in the 1940s and went on to become head coach of the Chicago Bears.
But in the 1950s, the early stages of the spread formation began seeping into mainstream football. One or both ends were split out and came to be called split ends. The end who remained right next to the tackle became known as a tight end.
Tight ends have been slow to gain respect. Not until 1988 (Dikta) was a modern tight end inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Seven others have joined him there: Mackey (1992), Jackie Smith (1994), Winslow (1995), Newsome (1999), Casper (1999), Sanders (2007) and Sharpe (2011).
Of course, tight end now is the wrong description. Big end is more like it. Gronkowski and Davis and Graham still line up tight on occasion, but they also can be found most anywhere when the ball is snapped, even in the backfield, ala Hernandez.
And the prototypical tight end – a weapon and a big blocker – is harder and harder to find. The Detroit Lions' Brandon Pettigrew, who starred at OSU, fits the bill. But few others do.
“A good receiver, but also an in-line blocker,” Monken said. “But high schools don't even run those offenses. That's why Brandon Pettigrew was such a novelty. At most high schools, Brandon Pettigrew doesn't even play where he's playing. He's playing defensive end.
“It's hard to find those guys. If they don't exist, you're not recruiting ‘em.”
* * *
All those touchdowns in NFL playoff games last week? Some were big plays. Davis scored on a 49-yard play; Graham from 66.
But the value of tight ends goes up inside the 20-yard line. When speed becomes less important and grit moreso, tight ends thrive.
“Those smaller guys shrink as you get down close,” said Monken. “The windows get tighter.”
That's why OSU has a renewed interest in tight ends. With Dana Holgorsen's arrival in 2010 as offensive coordinator, tight ends went unneeded on the Cowboy roster. But they are returning under Monken, not necessarily lining up as tight ends, but lining up as big slot receivers, much like Tracy Moore in 2011.
And near the goal line, size becomes more valued than speed or quickness. Monken said, “Even if they (a tight end) get matched up on a corner(back), they have such a size advantage, there's a comfort level for the quarterback, throwing to a bigger target.
Lot more room for error.”
Lot more room for tight ends to become marquee players, both Sunday in the conference championship games and in the college and pro seasons to come.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at