- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 8, 2011


Had circumstances not intervened, this could have been quite the Sunday at Fed Ex Field, a veritable Tight End Jamboree. The New England Patriots would have shown up with twin terrors Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and the Washington Redskins would have countered with their formidable pair, Chris Cooley and Fred Davis.

Alas, a knee injury cut short Cooley’s season, and a drug suspension abruptly ended Davis’. So all we can do is sigh at what might have been and marvel at the abilities of the Patriots‘ duo, who are positioning themselves to be — and I don’t say this lightly — the greatest tight end duo in NFL history.

In case you hadn’t noticed, this is the Golden Age of Tight Ends. We’ve seen more good ones in the past decade than ever before. Shannon Sharpe (who’s already in the Hall of Fame), Tony Gonzalez (who soon will be), Antonio Gates, Jason Witten … the list goes on.

Tight ends are putting up numbers like never before. Gonzalez has caught more passes (1,135 and counting) at his age (35) than Jerry Rice did (1,084). And now we have the next wave — kids such as Gronkowski and New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham, who are doing things their predecessors only dreamed of.

Take Gronk, as his Patriots teammates call him. In his first two seasons, he has 23 touchdown receptions (with four games to play). That’s six more than the previous most by a tight end (Mike Ditka, 17).

But wait, it gets better. Gronkowski, after all, is only 22. It turns out only one receiver in the league’s 92 years — tight end, wideout, whatever — has had more than 23 TD catches before his 23rd birthday: Randy Moss (28).

That’s how crazy it’s gotten. We’re starting to compare tight ends to Randy Moss.

Then there’s Graham. Twelve games into the season, he’s already gone over the 1,000-yard mark (1,046). At his current pace, he’ll finish with 1,395 — which would break the record for a tight end by more than 100 (Kellen Winslow, 1,290, 1980).

So we have Gronkowski outdoing a Hall of Famer (Ditka), and we have Graham on pace to outdo a Hall of Famer (Winslow). And they’re just getting started. Give Gronk a few more years with Tom Brady and Graham a few more with Drew Brees, and there’s no telling what they can accomplish.

What’s going on here, you ask? Evolution is going on here. As Patriots coach Bill Belichick put it this week: “Over the last I don’t know how many years, the game has gone from being a two-back game to more of a one-back game. … You’re seeing … fullbacks’ playing time decline and more multiple tight end sets.”

That’s the other thing. One tight end isn’t enough anymore. More teams are using two pretty regularly. Look at the Pats this season. Gronkowski has caught 65 passes for 928 yards, and Hernandez has caught 54 for 523. Heck, a year ago, the Saints tormented defenses with three interchangeable tight ends — Graham, Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas (combined totals: 102 receptions, 983 yards, 10 touchdowns).

What’s happened is that, as offenses have become more wide open, the fullback has morphed into a second tight end. This makes him more of a receiving threat, obviously, but also gives the quarterback an extra blocker on the line to protect against blitzes.

In the no-huddle attack, particularly, an all-purpose tight end — one who can catch and block — can pose major matchup problems. If the defense is in the nickel or dime, the offense can just pound the ball (and have tight ends blocking DBs). If the defense is in its standard set, the offense can throw to the tight ends, one of whom will undoubtedly be covered by a linebacker. As you’ll see Sunday, Gronkowski (6-foot-6, 265 pounds) and Hernandez (6-2, 250) have the size and speed to do whatever is required.

As receivers, they also get to operate in the middle of the field much of the time, sometimes running out of the slot. This makes them harder to defend and, well, why don’t I let Brady explain it?

“There’s more versatility in the inside part of the field,” he says, “because they can go in any direction. If you’re an outside receiver and you’re split outside the numbers, there are not many places you can go, so it usually takes a little more time to get into your route. When you’re an inside receiver, you have every direction available. So that’s why those guys typically have more catches probably for less yards - because they have to deal with more people inside. But they also can catch the ball quick, short, intermediate, as well as down the field.”

Everything in pro football is cyclical, but right now it’s a tight end’s world. And the Patriots have the best tandem around, a pair of 22-year-olds who, before they’re through, could rank ahead of Dave Casper and Raymond Chester (Oakland Raiders, 1970s), Keith Jackson and Mark Chmura (Green Bay Packers, 1990s) and be thought of as the best of all time.

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