IRVING (AP) — Before Tony Romo had Jason Witten, before Troy Aikman had Jay Novacek, the Roger Staubach-led Dallas Cowboys had a different breed of tight end.
“A Western Union guy,” then-star Billie Joe DuPree recalled. His role: “A little messenger, run plays in from the sideline to Roger.”
The Cowboys were no exception, either. Throughout the NFL, tight ends used to be blockers who could catch a little or pass-catchers who could block a little. Rare was the guy big enough to hold his own as a blocker and nimble enough to be part of the passing game.
My, how things have changed.
The position has evolved so much that we’re in the midst of a revolution. Rare is the team that doesn’t have a Witten or a Jeremy Shockey, an Antonio Gates or a Tony Gonzalez. And, quite often, woe is the offense that’s missing one of these hybrid studs.
“You got guys who are 6-foot-5 or 6-4 who can run a 4.5 and put them at tight end with good ball skills and you’ve got a pretty good tight end,” said one of the best, Cleveland’s Kellen Winslow, whose dad is widely considered the standard by which all tight ends are judged — apologies to Mike Ditka and John Mackey. “Every team is trying to find those guys because it’s a mismatch.”
The prototype tight end these days is too big to be covered by a defensive back and too fast for a linebacker. His hands are as reliable, if not more, than the best receivers.
As for blocking, well, you can’t have everything. Guys are still labeled either blocking tight ends or receiving tight ends, but the gap between them has narrowed. Besides, size alone makes receiving TEs an obstacle and most take some pride in blocking so they can be considered all-around players.
Such requirements border on freak-of-nature status, yet the NFL rosters are stocked with them — so much that we’re in the midst of a golden age for tight ends, with 2007 easily the Year of the TE.
Witten recently tied the tight-end record for catches in a game with 15 and he has 94 receptions this season, giving him a shot at Gonzalez’s single-season record of 102. Yet he’s not the only one who might break it. Gonzalez himself is at 92.
Even if Gonzalez only makes it 95, that’d be enough to put him No. 1 on the career list for tight ends, ahead of Shannon Sharpe’s 815. He’s already tops in touchdowns with 66.
Should Witten and Gonzalez hit 100, it would be the first time in NFL history two tight ends crack the mark in the same season. Heck, it’s only happened once, period.
This also might be the first season with four tight ends gaining more than 1,000 yards. Witten, Gonzalez and Winslow already have done it, and Gates is 78 yards away.
The position isn’t merely top-heavy with stars.
As a group, NFL tight ends have 1,959 catches, 20,789 yards and 172 touchdowns this season, according to Stats LLC. With one game left, they’ve crushed the records for receptions and touchdowns, each set within the last two years, and are 19 yards from breaking the yardage mark that’s stood since 1984.
For a comparison, go back to 2002, when the Houston Texans made the NFL a 32-team league. That season, tight ends combined for 1,678 catches, 17,534 yards and 134 TDs. That’s roughly 15 percent fewer catches and yards and 22 percent fewer TDs — and it was only five years ago.
“A lot of the bigger athletes at that size, we seemed to not have there for a while,” said Cowboys coach Wade Phillips, in his 31st NFL season. “Now, it seems like were getting them back.”
Gonzalez is the pioneer of this new era, followed by a wave of guys who already are between 25th and 40th on the career TE receptions list, yet are still in their prime: Shockey, Witten, Baltimore’s Todd Heap and Gates.
The list of up-and-comers includes Winslow, Pro Bowler Chris Cooley of Washington, Indianapolis’ Dallas Clark and Pittsburgh’s Heath Miller. Another guy probably known only to fantasy football players is Houston’s Owen Daniels; he has more catches and yards than Cooley.
Of the 10 that have clinched a playoff spot, four have a tight end among their top two in receptions or yards. It’ll be 6-for-12 if Cleveland (Winslow) and Washington (Cooley) make it as wild cards.
“The teams that have the most productive passing games and are most wide-open are the most successful,” said Redskins offensive guru Al Saunders, who has coached the original Kellen Winslow, Gonzalez and now Cooley.