What we saw in the divisional playoffs was a continuation of what we saw during the regular season, that is, the evolution of the tight end as a game-changing, stretch-the-field weapon.
Look at these numbers from the weekend games
Rob Gronkowski, New England 10 catches, 145 yards, three touchdowns.
Vernon Davis, San Francisco seven catches, 180 yards, two touchdowns.
Jimmy Graham, New Orleans five catches, 103 yards, two touchdowns.
Aaron Hernandez, New England four catches, 55 yards, one touchdown.
Toss in Jermichael Finleys four catches for Green Bay and Kris Wilsons touchdown reception for Baltimore and it was a pretty impressive showcase for the tight ends, but thats how it has been all season.
During the regular season, six of the NFLs top 17 receivers were tight ends: Graham with 99 catches, Gronkowski with 90, Detroits Brandon Pettigrew with 83, Atlantas ageless Tony Gonzalez with 80 and Hernandez and Jason Witten of Dallas tied at 79.
But what is extraordinary about this season is not the volume of catches; we have seen tight ends catch passes before. But what we are seeing now is more tight ends making more big plays. Gronkowski led the league with 17 touchdown catches. He and Graham both went over 1,000 yards. Average yards per catch at the tight end position were higher than ever.
So whats happening?
It is a combination of some exceptional athletes coming into the league, more spread formations -- which create more space for players like Davis and Gronkowski to exploit their size and speed advantage -- and also the current rules, which limit contact and make it easier to throw the ball generally.
Pro football has become a game of matchups; moving players around to create situations where they have the advantage over the defense. We are seeing that more and more with tight ends. We saw it when the Saints got Graham matched up against Patrick Willis on his two touchdowns. We saw it again when the 49ers got Davis on Roman Harper on the winning touchdown.
Willis is one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL, a Pro Bowler, but he cant stay with Graham on a seam route. He isnt fast enough. Harper is a good safety, but when Davis gets inside him on a post route, Harper isnt big enough to prevent him from catching the football.
Thats the dilemma these tight ends create. Who do you assign to cover them?
Linebackers arent fast enough. Defensive backs arent physical enough. Put two of them on the field at once as the Patriots do with Gronkowski and Hernandez and it doubles the problem for defensive coordinators.
Vernon Davis is 6-3, weighs 255 pounds and runs the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds. When he worked out for the scouts in 2006, he did 33 reps in the bench press (225 pounds) and measured an NBA-worthy 42 inches in the vertical jump. Who can cover a player like that?
Gronkowski is 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds with long arms and pillow-soft hands. Hernandez is 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds with the route-running skills of a wide receiver. Bill Belichick took both in the 2010 draft Gronkowski in the second round, Hernandez in the fourth with a very clear idea of how to utilize them. Lots of two tight end sets, lots of motion and lots of fun for Tom Brady.
Gronkowski and Hernandez are every bit as important to the New England offense as Wes Welker. Welker led the league with 122 catches, but Gronkowski had almost twice as many touchdowns (Welker had nine) and averaged 14.7 yards per catch to Welkers 12.9. Hernandez often lines up next to Welker in the bunch formation and drives off the coverage creating the space for Welker to work the middle of the field.
What makes New Englands tight ends particularly hard to defend is the way they move around. Both Gronkowski and Hernandez are capable of lining up like wide receivers on the far outside. What is the defense to do? Do you run a linebacker out there? Ask him to play like a cornerback? You cant do that. Do you put a cornerback out there? Ask them to tackle a receiver that size? Are you crazy?
See the problem?
This isnt a new phenomenon. Weve seen game-changing tight ends before, going back to Kellen Winslow, Sr., with San Diego and Ozzie Newsome with Cleveland in the 1980s and more recently Shannon Sharpe with Denver. Gonzalez brought a new prototype, the converted basketball player, when he was drafted by Kansas City. Antonio Gates in San Diego and now Graham are basketball players who made the successful leap to the NFL.
The difference now is there are just so many of these talented athletes and with the NFL becoming more of a passing league we see their skills showcased every week. Early this season, Washington cornerback Josh Wilson called Gronkowski the human gargoyle, half-man, half beast. It could apply to many of the current tight ends.
E-mail Ray Didinger at email@example.com