We're living in the golden age of the tight end, as this generation's versatile downfield threats have become preferred targets in today's ever-evolving passing attacks
Chris Cooley begins his warmup routine before each game the same way. He and Redskins backup quarterback John Beck grab a football and see which player can most often hit the crossbar with various throws from the field. When they finish, Cooley gets serious. He seeks out the opposing tight end to talk about their shared existence at the vanguard of a football renaissance.
On Sunday night at FedEx Field, Cooley's opposite was Colts tight end Dallas Clark, a player with whom Cooley is often compared for their ability to outfox defenders and their willingness to sacrifice their bodies.
"I'll watch him run routes, and I'll think, He fits into this scheme," Cooley says of Clark. "When I see Dallas do things, I think I can do those things too."
Clark has similar praise for his Redskins counterpart. "Sure-handed, tough and a hard worker," Clark says. "You can tell he's been that way every day he's played football. Just a grinder. He's a special one."
Their chat over, Clark and Cooley made plans to speak after the game, a 27--24 Colts' victory that highlighted the beauty, diversity and peril of their position. Cooley caught five passes for 37 yards and delivered the game's most punishing block, sending Colts defensive back Justin Tryon hurtling backward on a collision in the third quarter. Clark grabbed six passes for 52 yards—gutting the middle of the Redskins' defense—and repeatedly pulled across the line of scrimmage to help out on running plays.
The game over, an achy Clark walked a narrow corridor toward the Redskins' locker room to wish Cooley well, only to learn that he'd suffered a concussion. "I was looking for him," Clark said. "It's fun to tell [opposing tight ends] you admire them and how much you love to watch them play."
At perhaps no time in the history of the NFL has the tight end position been so flush with skilled big men who can affect a game from so many spots on the field. While tight ends still often line up next to tackles, today's offensive schemes also find them in the slot, split wide and even in the backfield. Where once they were grunts along the line of scrimmage, today's tight ends are as likely to be sent in motion as they are to be nose to nose with a pass rusher, and they can catch balls out of the air as deftly as any wide receiver.
"When you talk about those guys, the first word that comes to mind is versatility," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning says. "For us, Dallas pass-protects like a right tackle, and he's also a threat to go down the middle of the field. You've seen Dallas in the backfield for us, or lining up at wide receiver, and [Antonio] Gates and Cooley do that too. What those guys have in common is that they can really make you pay for a mistake. You have to find the guy that can do that, where if [the defender] slips just a little bit, if he bites on a fake just a little bit, it's not just going to cost [the defense] a 10-yard completion, it might cost [it] an 80-yard touchdown."
And more such versatile weapons are coming on-line every season. A tight end has been selected in the first round of the NFL draft every year since 2000. The rebuilding Lions spent a precious first-round pick last year on Oklahoma State's 6'5", 265-pound Brandon Pettigrew, who has emerged as a valuable target in Detroit, leading the team with 33 catches for 336 yards this season. The Patriots plucked two tight ends in their first six selections last April, Arizona's Rob Gronkowski in the second round and Florida's Aaron Hernandez in the fourth, and they've combined for 29 catches.
Says Ozzie Newsome, the Hall of Fame Browns tight end and now the Ravens' general manager, "This last draft was as good a group of tight ends as I've seen in the last decade. The advent of the spread offense, both on our level and in college, has been beneficial to the tight end because guys in college get more opportunities to run routes and catch balls. You can get a proper evaluation without having to project a lot. With that 6'3", 6'5", 240-, 250-pound guy, people are finding out that if you have ability they can use you. The tight end is not a guy that has a hand in the dirt for 70 plays anymore."
To trace the evolution of the position is to trace the evolution of football, from its power-running roots to today's aerial look. Clark and Cooley are two of the more prolific tight ends of the past decade—Clark has averaged 78 receptions over the last three seasons; Cooley had 69 per season from '05 to '08 but missed nine games last year—but even their styles have their antecedents in the recent past. The bulldozing, pass-catching contemporaries Mike Ditka and John Mackey in the 1960s ultimately gave way to speedsters like Newsome and Kellen Winslow in the late '70s and early '80s, as offenses began to open up. In San Diego, coach Don Coryell began moving Winslow to different spots to give him space to use his speed and create mismatches against linebackers. In Cleveland, where Newsome was drafted out of Alabama as a receiver, coach Sam Rutigliano converted him to tight end, giving the Browns a versatile weapon to better combat the dominant defensive schemes of division-rival Pittsburgh.
"The Steelers won the Super Bowl in 1978 and 1979 playing Cover Two," Newsome says. "They were trying to take away the two outside receivers with corners and safeties over the top. [The Browns] wanted someone who could impact the middle of the field, and that's why they converted me."
Players such as Newsome, Winslow and the Raiders' Raymond Chester and Dave Casper were precursors to the tight end in the three-receiver sets so prevalent in offenses today. Not every tight end, however, has enjoyed the philosophical shift away from lining up next to a tackle to moving around in a formation. "I was in the slot a couple of times, but I didn't like it," says Mark Bavaro, who played tight end for nine seasons and won Super Bowls with the Giants in the 1986 and '90 seasons. "I would fall into the category of a guy with his hand on the ground. I was fast, and I didn't drop many balls, but my first job was to block. I liked having my opponent a couple inches from my face. If you were going to play for [coach] Bill Parcells and [offensive coordinator] Ron Erhardt, you had to block."
How would Bavaro have fared in today's NFL? "If I had to play now I could, but I'd miss the blocking," Bavaro says. "Today's game is like a glorified seven-on-seven [passing] drill, all spread out. You're measuring skills against skills. Back then you measured toughness against toughness. It's not good or bad—it's just different."
Redskins coach Mike Shanahan says the key—even in today's game—is to find a tight end who is a skilled receiver and blocker (though, clearly, the more he's catching passes downfield, the less he is staying home and clearing lanes for runners or protecting the quarterback). The lure of the playmaking tight end is strong, and nearly every team has at least one and sometimes more because of the problems they present a defense. Clark and Cooley, both 6' 3" and roughly 250, flip-flop to either side of the line of scrimmage and are constantly in search of a profitable matchup.
"Linebackers are used to playing inside that seven-man box, and all of a sudden you're forced to go into bump coverage, split outside," says Ryan Nece, who played 'backer for the Buccaneers and the Lions from 2002 to '08. "That takes a different skill set. If a defensive back gets beat, he still might sense when a ball is coming and put his hand up or turn around. If a linebacker gets beat, he's in panic mode. You see him get pass interference called, or he just gets beat. At this level, and with a quarterback like Peyton Manning, you only need a crease to succeed."
The league's toughest tight end to cover has to be Gates, the 6' 4", 260-pound former college power forward who has been upending defensive playbooks almost from the moment he stepped on the field. In his first season, 2003, he averaged 16.2 yards a catch. In his second he caught 13 touchdowns. This year Gates extended his streak of games with at least one touchdown catch to nine, which put him in the company of wide receivers such as Lance Alworth, Carl Pickens, Randy Moss and Jerry Rice. (The streak ended on Sunday when he left San Diego's 20--17 loss to St. Louis with an ankle injury.)
"The first touchdown he ever caught was a corner route," says Doug Flutie, the former Chargers quarterback who threw it. "Because he was so athletic, he could keep people's hands off him and get that inside release down by the goal line and then get back out. I just put it up in the corner and he went and got it. His receiving skills, eye-hand and body control were never in question. By halftime I realized, This guy's a weapon."
Neither Cooley nor Clark were sure they'd even play pro football. When Cooley was a freshman tight end at Utah State, a teammate told him he'd never make it to the NFL. As a senior Cooley caught 62 passes for 732 yards and six touchdowns. Washington took him in the third round in 2004.
Clark's rise was more unlikely. He walked on at Iowa as a linebacker and was mired on the third string until the coaches spotted him playing catch with the quarterback and decided to move him to tight end before his sophomore season. He soon realized his time as a linebacker had not been in vain. He understood why defenses succeed and fail—the latter by missing assignments and tackles and losing leverage on an offensive player—and he learned to exploit weaknesses that had once been his own. "You know what defenses are trying to do, or what linebackers in certain coverages are trying to do," Clark says. "You understand how they work as a unit. It really helped. It was, 'This was tough for me as a linebacker. Now I know what his problem is.' "
When Clark declared for the 2003 draft after a junior season in which he caught 43 passes for 742 yards, few envisioned him as destined for the Colts, who were already stacked on offense. But Indy drafted him 24th overall. "The perception was that we needed to draft defense, and I think we surprised people," says former Colts coach Tony Dungy. "Bill Polian felt, and I agreed, that [Clark] was the piece to the puzzle that was missing. To keep that thing going where you had someone in the middle who could be dangerous—we had the wide receivers in Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison, and we were getting double coverage on the outside—[Clark] was the piece that made the offense go to that next level."
Dungy's successor, Jim Caldwell, says, "Dallas had 100 catches last year. Think about that. For a tight end, that's a lot."
In the NFL of the past, that number would have been mind-boggling. Soon it could be the norm.
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"THEY MAKE YOU PAY FOR A MISTAKE," MANNING SAYS OF TODAY'S TIGHT ENDS. "IT MIGHT COST YOU NOT A 10-YARD GAIN BUT AN 80-YARD TOUCHDOWN."
Photograph by BOB ROSATO
INSIDE INFO Clark, a college linebacker, knows the tendencies and weaknesses of his defenders and exploits them to gain an edge.
ANDY HAYT (WINSLOW, NEWSOME)
FORERUNNERS Winslow (80) and Newsome (above) showed what athletic tight ends can do when offenses give them the opportunity.
BOB ROSATO (COOLEY)
REACHING OUT Cooley has led the Skins in receptions in three of the last four seasons, but he takes his share of knocks.