No answers for Pats' tight end tandem

No answers for Pats' tight end tandem
December 28, 2011, 6:47 pm
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FOXBORO - Think of all the great tight end tandems in NFL history.There's . . . well . . . ummm. Actually, prolific tight end tandems are rare. Teams have sometimes had more than one talented tight end, but the roles those players filled were somewhat exclusive. There was a blocker and there was a pass-catcher. Marv Fleming and Ron Kramer on the old Packers. Todd Christensen and Don Hasselbeck on the early '80s Raiders. Kellen Winslow and Eric Seivers on the '80s Chargers. Shannon Sharpe and Byron Chamberlain on the '90s Broncos. The model has changed in the past few seasons. The proliferation of athletic big men who can exploit linebackers in the speed game and safeties or corners in the size matchup has led to a run on tight ends. The Patriots are at the vanguard of this. An offense that screamed for a tight-end complement throughout the team's decade of excellence hit the mother lode in 2010 when it picked up Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. This week, the two players will combine to go over 2,000 combined receiving yards (they have 1,991 between them) and enter the season finale with 154 catches and 21 touchdowns (22 if you throw in Gronk's intended TD reception that got switched to a run because it was a lateral). Statistically,a tight-end combination has never done anything remotely close to what Gronkowski and Hernandez have in 2011. And schematically, the same is true. It's unprecedented. Chan Gailey's been around the NFL since 1985. Ever seen anything like this tight end pairing?"I don't think I have," said Gailey, whose Bills play the Patriots Sunday. "I don't think I've seen two guys that can go make plays the way they go make plays and all the different ways that they can do it. Split out. From the backfield. They can do it from tight. They make plays and they block well enough to have a good running game as well. The combination of them and how they use them is very unique and that's one of the reasons they give teams problems. The matchups are very difficult."Of Tom Brady's 576 attempts this season, 216 have gone to Gronknandez (37 percent). Withanother 162 balls directed at Wes Welker, 378 of the 576 have gone to players who are ostensibly "underneath" receivers. That's 65 percent of all throws. In 2009, 60 of Brady's 565 attempts went to tight ends Ben Watson and Chris Baker. That's 11 percent. And they combined for 43 catches and 546 yards. The incarnation of the Patriots' offense that went 16-0 in the 2007 regular season and had Brady setting the NFL record for touchdown passes and Randy Moss setting the record for receiving touchdowns is a relic. In four seasons, a new offense has been created around Brady and - while the 2007 one was arguably the most evolved and prolific of all time - the new one is nearly as prolific and productive thanks to Welker and the tight ends. When the Patriots offense is stopped, Gailey points out, it stops itself. "First of all, you have to hope that they mess it up a little bit because I'm not sure that we can go out there and say, 'OK, if we go out there and figure out what they're doing we can stop it,' " Gailey acknowledged."They do so many different things that if you stop one thing they'll go to something else. That's exactly what they've shown in weeks prior to this. They've gotten stymied a little bit in the first quarter and then they figure it out and they come out gangbusters. You have to really work hard for 60 minutes to have a chance to control their offense."And even then it's only a chance. The league will evolve and answers or countermoves to the tight ends will emerge. But for now, there are no answers for Gronknandez.