MIKE DITKA, JOHN MACKEY, DAVE CASPER, JASON WITTEN AND ROB GRONKOWSKI…OH YES, ANTONIO GATES AND TONY GONZALEZ… AND ALSO TODD CHRISTIANSEN
Not to mention Shannon Sharpe, Kellen Winslow, Ozzie Newsome, Jackie Smith, Riley Odoms, Bubba Franks, Jeremy Shockey, Mark Bavaro, Dallas Clark, Todd Heap, Jay Novacek, Jimmy Graham, Ben Coates, Vernon Davis, Greg Olsen, Heath Miller, Keith Jackson, Charlie Sanders, Russ Francis, Billy Joe DuPree, Wesley Walls, Jerry Smith, Raymond Chester, Alge Crumpler, Richard Caster, Bob Tucker, Pete Metzelaars, Bob Trumpy, Jimmie Giles, Daniel Graham, Dan Ross, Dennis Pitta, Ted Kwalick, Kellen Winslow II, Ken MacAfee, Dustin Keller, Benjamin Watson, Jim Mandich and Billy Cannon.
And there were others.
And there are others.
Like Kyle Rudolph for instance.
The Wikipedia definition of the tight end (TE) is as follows:
“The tight end (TE) is a position in American football, Arena football, and formerly Canadian football, on the offense. The tight end is often seen as a hybrid position with the characteristics and roles of both an offensive lineman and a wide receiver.”
NFL tight ends — college too — are a species unto themselves.
They can catch. They can block. They can run. They can run after the catch.
They are quasi-skilled players who not only don’t disdain contact, they rather like it.
In some cases, they relish it and even instigate and then initiate it.
They are offensive linemen with more speed and better hands.
Very rare breeds are they.
And tight ends assimilate seamlessly.
They get along beautifully with quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers as well as their partners in the trenches. They are extremely valuable pieces in the offensive scheme and integral to the overall team persona and success.
The one-platoon system or ‘iron man football’ was a given in the game’s early days when smaller roster sizes and limited substitution rules dictated that players go both ways, laboring on offense and defense as the ball changed hands. Offensive linemen doubled as defensive linemen or linebackers and receivers became defensive backs.
Free substitution was legalized in the 1940s and became de rigueur in football as such, facilitating the arrival of the “two-platoon” or simply the “platoon system.”
Separate and distinct offensive, defensive and special teams units — Bill Belichick would describe them as ‘the three phases of the game’ — were established; the era of specialization had arrived.
Gradually niches were created for players who simply didn’t fit the traditional mold(s).
The evolution of the tight end position represents a perfect example.
Neither the prototypical “end” lining up wide at the line of scrimmage, nor the “flanker” slotted slightly behind the line on the opposite side of the field, the larger-sized players lining up inside who could catch and block and run were identified and schematically introduced by innovative coaches like Paul Brown and voila!
A role was created.
Stars were born.
Hall-of-Famers Mike Ditka and John Mackey led the charge, achieving prominence in the early 1960s.
Until then the tight end was utilized almost exclusively as a sixth offensive lineman, a blocker. Few if any were thought of as receivers.
Ditka was a superb blocker with hands to match who demonstrated the unique ability to run after making the catch, gaining significant and valuable additional yardage.
(Today’s metric of yards after catch — acronym YAC — should somehow salute Ditka, whose mug must be right alongside its definition).
Over a twelve-year career, “Iron Mike” caught 427 passes for more than 5,800 yards and 43 touchdowns.
Mackey, who came along two years later, added the element of speed to the package with six of his nine touchdown catches in one season resulting in breakaway runs of over 50 yards.
He had 331 career receptions worth 5,236 yards and 38 TDs; his average of 15.8 yards per catch as a tight end was astounding at the time and remains so today. Rob Gronkowski, who when all is said and done will likely be considered the greatest tight end of them all, averaged 15.6 yards per catch in the 2017 season.
The emergence of Kellen Winslow in Don Coryell’s — Air Coryell — 1980 San Diego Charger offense featured the tight end running wide receiver-type routes.
In 1980 and ’81 Winslow led the NFL in receptions, becoming the first tight end ever to top that chart in consecutive seasons. Described by former Charger assistant coach Al Saunders as “a wide receiver in an offensive lineman’s body,” Winslow was either put in motion, or lined up wide or in the slot against a smaller cornerback.
Covered by a strong safety or a linebacker — or both — as zone defenses were largely eschewed then, was like throwing a slab of raw meat to a wild animal. Holes were opened, space was created, Winslow salivated and then he attacked viciously.
Depending on the formation, he’d find himself either in a three-point blocking stance, a two-point receiver’s stance or in motion as a flanker or an offensive back might be, flummoxing the defense to a fare-thee-well.
Jon Gruden has admiringly referred to multi-dimensional/faceted tight ends of this ilk as “jokers,” citing Winslow as the first.
The football historian nonpareil Belichick himself has proffered that the pass-catching tight ends paid the most money are “all direct descendants of Kellen Winslow.”
In the same breath he has lamented the fact that there are fewer tight ends in today’s rendition who can truly block on the line.
In the ’90s it was Shannon Sharpe who helped incorporate route-running into the tight end role and thereby influence strategy. Consistently double-teamed as a receiver, he became the first tight end in NFL history to amass over 10,000 career receiving yards.
Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates continued to reconfigure the position by accenting wide receiver-like speed and power forward basketball skills, a sport incidentally played by both in college. (Gonzalez played basketball at Cal. Berkeley and Gates at Kent State).
Then the other-worldly Gronkowski sauntered in to set single-season tight end records in 2011 with 17 touchdowns — smashing the record thirteen shared by Gates and Vernon Davis — and 1,327 receiving yards eclipsing Winslow’s mark of 1,290.
(That 2011 season also saw Jimmy Graham break Winslow’s record with 1,310 receiving yards of his own and remarkably, the existence of no fewer than six tight ends among the league’s top 15 in receptions, by far the most in NFL history).
Rob Gronkowski is listed at 6’6” and 265 pounds and his mix of size, strength, speed and pure athleticism is at such a stupid-crazy level that it almost defies description and logic.
The Boston Globe’s Jim McBride gives it a whirl when he says that Gronkowski offers the best of both the receiving and blocking worlds.
“A graceful and fluid player, Gronkowski has the feet of a ballet dancer, the arms of a bodybuilder, the wingspan of a 747, and only air traffic controllers have a grasp of his catch radius. He can outleap any defender yet also has the dexterity to pick passes off his shoe-tops without breaking stride. His relentless pursuit of the ball is matched only by his relentlessness as a blocker. Gronkowski engages until the echo of the whistle and gets just as excited when asked about a key block as he does about a big score.”
Bavaro, a favorite of both Bill Parcells and Belichick during their Giants regime, was honored to be likened to Gronkowski in any way.
“Gronkowski’s the best in the game — he impresses me,” Bavaro offered during Super Bowl week. “I like the way he plays. I like his attitude and his athletic abilities. His size? He’s phenomenal. He’s a force and he changes every game he plays in. He’s an old-time football player and I really respect that.”
Through eight seasons Gronkowski has to his credit 474 catches for 7,179 yards and 76 TDs. He has four seasons with at least 65 catches; six with at least 8 TD catches; and four with at least 1,000 yards receiving.
His career Approximate Value, a metric conceived by Pro-Football-reference.com which assigns every player by position an Approximate Value for every regular season, quantifiably based on several categories and then added together, ranks Gronkowski higher than five of the eight tight ends enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
(The criteria include number of seasons played; number of Pro Bowl selections; and number of All-Pro First Team selections).
Gronk’s 76 AV (2010–2017) trails Shannon Sharpe (104); Jackie Smith (95); and Ozzie Newsome (77) but is greater than those of Kellen Winslow Sr. (71); John Mackey (68); Mike Ditka (67); Charlie Sanders (65); and Dave Casper (61).
In last evening’s Super Bowl LII won by the Eagles 41–33 in a record-setting offensive showcase, the teams combined for 1,152 yards.
Game MVP Nick Foles — who caught a touchdown pass to become the first QB in Super Bowl history to do so and threw for 373 yards and three more — and the ageless and indefatigable Tom Brady who threw for an eye-popping 505 yards of his own, steered their units into history.
Gronkowski, invisible in the first half with one catch for nine yards, finished with a Gronk-like big bang: nine receptions; 116 yards; and two TDs.
For Pats fans it simply and sadly wasn’t enough.
But for the gifted Rob Gronkowski it was another day at work, honoring the tight end position and further burnishing its image.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in February 2018.]