Tight ends catching on

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Maybe it was because he always had Art Monk to throw to. Or Gary Clark. Or Ricky Sanders. Or Charlie Brown. Whatever the reason, Joe Gibbs was never a big Tight End Guy during his first term with the Redskins. Wideouts — Pro Bowl wideouts, generally — were always the focal point of his passing game.

Classic example: One Sunday in 1990, the Washington offense was spinning its wheels against Lawrence Taylor and the Giants. So Coach Joe, having nowhere else to turn, started calling for little dump-offs to Donnie Warren. Warren was more of a tight tackle than a tight end, but on that afternoon he caught 10 — count ‘em, 10 — balls (for a whopping 66 yards). In the Redskins’ other 15 games that year, he grabbed a grand total of five.

Five receptions in 15 games. Compare that to what Chris Cooley, Gibbs’ current H-back/tight end, has been doing recently. In Week 5 against the Broncos, Cooley had eight catches. In Week 6 against the Chiefs, he had six. Sunday night in the 17-10 win over the Eagles, he had seven. All told, he has 35 catches for 403 yards and two touchdowns at season’s midpoint — the kind of numbers that haven’t been put up by a Redskins tight end since 1967, when Jerry Smith set franchise records with 67, 849 and 12.

Smith wasn’t nearly as physically imposing as today’s tight ends. (Heck, at 6-foot-3, 207 pounds, he could have passed for a flanker even back then.) The same goes for Clint Didier, the only tight end in the First Gibbs Era who caused much concern for opposing secondaries. Didier was nicknamed “Froggy” by his teammates — not because he had a hoarse, he-man voice, but because he had long, springy legs.

Cooley, on the other hand, is a solid 6-3, 265 — more armadillo than frog. But don’t let that fool you. His hands are soft and his speed is more than sufficient. As Mark Brunell puts it, “He can block, catch, run great routes, and he can run with it after he gets it. He’s having a great year.”

So, for that matter, are a bunch of other tight ends. It’s one of the directions pro football has been going in. With defenses getting after the quarterback more, giving him less time to throw, having a tight end who can get open underneath — preferably a widebody who’s easily spotted amid the hurly-burly — has become crucial to offenses. And half the teams in the NFL, it seems, have a good one now.

In alphabetical order, you’ve got Alge Crumpler in Atlanta, Antonio Gates in San Diego, Tony Gonzalez in Kansas City, Todd Heap in Baltimore, Eric Johnson in San Francisco (currently injured), Randy McMichael in Miami, Jeremy Shockey in New York, L.J. Smith in Philadelphia, Jason Witten in Dallas, Jermaine Wiggins in Minnesota. Some clubs — like Tennessee with Erron Kinney and Ben Troupe and New England with Daniel Graham and Ben Watson — have two good ones.

Soon enough, Heath Miller’s name will be added to the list. Halfway through his rookie season, he’s leading the Steelers with six touchdown receptions. And next year, presumably, we’ll get to see what Kellen Winslow the Younger can do. It’s shaping up, really, as the Decade of the Tight End.

“I thought I had quite a few catches,” Cooley says. “And then I looked at the stats, and I’m [ranked], like, 10th.”

Actually, he’s ranked seventh among tight ends. But it gives you an idea of how hard it is to distinguish yourself at the position. After all, before this decade, only 11 tight ends had ever had 70 receptions in a season; in the last five years, though, eight more have joined the club — and by January the number might be 12. Kinney (44), Heap (37), Smith (36) and Cooley are all on pace.

Which doesn’t surprise the confident Cooley in the least. “I’ve always been able to catch the ball,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I knew it would happen this quickly for me, but I hoped I’d become this type of player.”

The Redskins took a gamble last year when they traded a future second-round pick for New Orleans’ third-rounder so they could draft Cooley. Swapping selection No. 40 for Selection No. 81 isn’t recommended in the General Manager’s Handbook. But the move has worked out nicely for them — at least as nicely as it did for the Saints, who came away with a starting free safety, Josh Bullocks.

Part of the reason for Cooley’s smooth transition is that he played a position similar to H-back at Utah State, one that required much shifting and motioning. “We called it the B-back,” he says. “The big difference is that when I line up at fullback here, I do a lot more blocking. When I lined up at fullback in college, I’d still go out for passes.”

Not that he doesn’t do plenty of that with the Redskins. Coach Joe sees to it. It’s just a matter, he says, of getting “the most out of your personnel.” When you have a player the caliber of Chris Cooley, logic dictates that you throw him the ball every now and then.

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