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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Are tight-ends an endangered species?

At the NFL level, where nearly every player has already won the DNA lottery, there are plenty of candidates to be effective tight-ends who can both run block like guards and get downfield like receivers -- or at least there are enough to be a force in the league and make every other team salivate (I'm looking at you Antonio Gates). At the lower levels though, finding one of these perfect specimens isn't so easy. And, with the rise of the spread, it is no surprise that tight-ends don't take the field quite as often as they used to. But reports of the demise of the position are overstated.

As an example, one coach recently asked, "Realistically, how much of a problem does a TE as a pass blocker pose in modern football?" He went on to say, "I say this because now that everyone's trying to go to some type of spread and put as many small, quick guys on the field as possible, TEs are becoming an almost endangered species on teams who want to throw." There were other observations about the ongoing usefulness of the tight-end position. Although I agree that just holding up a freak like Antonio Gates doesn't get you far (good luck finding those), I do not think the position is so useless or impractical as some have implied. (Beware, this post is kind of wonky and technical.)

Homer Smith discussed the role of the TE/H-back as a triple threat: he can block, release vertical (in a way that a back cannot), and can block for a few counts and release on a delayed pass, and therefore make two guys cover him. Here is what Homer Smith explained:

It takes a sixth frontal player (not counting the QB) to pull an identifiable pass defender into the front and to give the blockers something to work with to keep the center off the island. It takes the sixth, just as it takes him to deal with a blitz.

Which is a better sixth [blocker, a tight-end or a runningback]? A TE is more of a threat with the delayed pass that makes the pass defender on him stay at bay while the TE blocks the rusher. I think a TE is the better.

Anyway, this is not so black and white, RB versus TE. It's all shades: imagine lining up with a FB in the I. Now the FB cheats over; he lines up in a two-point stance, behind the guard at 4 yards. Now behind the tackle at 3 yards. Now he splits the tackle with his inside leg, at about 2 yards. What is he? A FB or an H-back? He can BOB the linebacker, no? He can still kick out for power, release into the flat, maybe even take a handoff if he comes inside enough. Now he steps over maybe another foot, etc. Now suddenly he's a tight-end/h-back all the way? And all those advantages are lost?

Also don't confuse personnel with position. You can put anyone you want there. I don't see why your RB is some invaluable pass blocker, despite the fact that he has to work on carrying the ball, catching the ball, and blocking in the run game, while the TE is just helpless?

Nothing wrong in HS in having a division of labor for these positions. On most teams I've been around, the TEs spend more time practicing with the OL than they do the receivers. If you want a glorified slot guy, then sub a receiver in and go from there. Or use a FB type (if you're got one).

Bottom line: it's an exceptionally useful thing, and don't be straitjacketed by black and white conceptions. The advantage of the four wide spread was a division of labor thing -- you could put four wides out there and get mismatches against the other team's base personnel, and often get them out of their base looks. You might not have a good TE or fb, so you didn't put one out there; you looked for advantages elsewhere. Nowadays with everyone being spread, is that really the case that just going four wide gives you all these mismatches? I'm not so sure; using a TE -- or alternating between TEs, FBs, and slot receivers -- seems to me the better move.

I consider my base offense to be 3 WR, 1 QB, 1 RB, and then a hybrid H-back position. That H-back position can be a true slot receiver (routes and jet sweeps), a FB, a true TE/H-back (either as a blocker or hybrid guy, though those are quite rare), or even just a 2nd RB. Depends on the guys you have, what you're trying to accomplish, and also your depth (can do a lot of great things if you have a couple of kids who fit the above descriptions and then just sub them in and out to give different looks).

But unquestionably, TE is maybe my favorite position. True, it's not always easy to find a good one, but it helps a lot. (And the two best formations in football might be trips closed and a TE/wing set, with a TE and a wing player to one side, and either a split end and flanker or a twins look).

Finally, one of the concerns was that a tight-end is in poor position to pass protect:

To me, a RB who starts out deeper in the backfield is in much better position to pick up blitzers, chip DEs, or even take a DE 1-on-1. . . . Now, compare that to a TE, who is always on the end of the line and is really only in position to pick up somebody coming off the edge. He also has far less time and room for error in diagnosing a blitz or stunt and getting his body where he needs to be.

I disagree; it is best not to overthink this. One, if you're having that many problems you can always back the TE up to be an H-back so he can see more. Second, you can make a very simple call ("solid") if the DE lines up on or outside the TE and the LB lines up inside. If both the DE and LB come (and don't twist) the tackle takes the LB and the TE takes the DE; if the LB doesn't rush then the TE passes the DE off to the tackle before releasing. You do get into the matchup issues, but it's not so ridiculous like he can't get there or will just whiff. It's just a simple area principle.


Tyler said...

I'd agree regarding "favorite" offensive position, if even just based on Madden/NCAA experience. Talk about matchup mismatches...

You'd almost also think that, fundamentally, as the defense "evolves" into covering smaller, faster offensive players (i.e. -- nickel, dime, quarter sets, etc.), then doesn't that big ol' TE look like a might big target?

I was just watching that Titans-Bills preaseason game and couldn't get over how rotund Alge Crumpler looks.

Will said...

Great stuff as usual. I don't disagree with any of it, but I would add:

Homer Smith is always a great resource, but he has his biases. For example, in the old Mouse Davis R&S, the FB blocks the EMLOS and is in perfect position for the delayed pass; in fact the screen off this protection was one of the offense's best plays. In that offense, however, there was also no need to give the center that man-and-a-half advantage that keeps him off the island and gives the pocket a bottom, because the passes were all half-rolls.

Also, another advantage of the 4 wide spread used to be that you could take players who would otherwise be backups and make them starters - that 3rd or 4th WR can have success against an inside LB rather than standing on the sideline waiting for an injury to the 1st string WR. This is a salary advantage to a professional team and a recruiting advantage to a college team, since these players can harldy demand a starter's salary or attention if they wouldn't get it somewhere else. Now that 3rd and 4th receivers are starting to see themselves as starters, the pendulum is swinging the other way and offenses that use TEs, especially multiple TEs, may start to see the same advantages.

Last, I don't know whose comment that was at the end but it sounds like they are coming from more of a man-protecting mindset. Those of us who are familiar with your half-slide scheme know that it is a strong, simple concept, but if someone is wedded to the idea of man-blocking (e.g. they see lots of odd fronts, they like teaching switches, their name is Mike Leach, who knows) then I can see why they might prefer having the RB to double-read ILB to OLB. You disagree with the comment because you prefer your scheme, as you should, but other people, for whatever reason, like their schemes, and those schemes may not use the TE as well as yours.

Anyway, great stuff all around. Looking forward to the comments.

Matthew said...

Help me out here..what does it mean to keep the center "off the island"?

Anonymous said...

I think you hit the nail on the head: don't get hung up in the naming convention. Yes, a sixth player aligned on the LOS as near as possible to the ball makes little sense in a spread offense in most circumstances. But any OC worth his salt should be able to devise a role for a player who can run, block and catch, regardless of the system the OC is running.

Semantics aside, however, most of us think of a TE as a guy who can't really run. And you don't want a plodder in a spread offense, particularly a spread to pass. Remember that the pro-style, traditional TE is of most utility in a run-first offense, where play action serves as a constraint (near-trick) play. When you're passing on 7 downs out of 10 or you're running primarily out of the read option (where play action is less effective), the TE is no longer a guy that a LB might ignore down the seam; instead he's a slow WR that a S can easily cover while keeping an eye in the backfield.

Of course, endangerment implies the spread becoming ubiquitous, whereas it seems close to peaking right now. And as systems evolve and merge, it's hard to imagine the simple elegance of running followed by play action exiting football.

Will said...


Homer Smith argues that to form a good pocket for a drop-back pass, the center has to have at least half a man helping him block: if not a true double-team, at least a guard who is helping the center while keeping an eye on a LB. This extra man effect gives the pocket a "bottom" where the passer can step up and throw. The opposite case, where a defender has a two-way go against the center, keeping in mind that one of the center's hands is occupied with snapping for at least an instant and that the shortest path to the passer is straight up the middle of the field, is bad; Smith calls this leaving the center on the island.

Coach Smith sells a series of coaching manuals online, but a lot of his thoughts and musings are available free on his website:

Will said...

Look at this:

Not the latest data, but apparently TEs are the lowest-paid position in the NFL (though SI did lump together all RB and all OL, rather than separating out OTs and FBs for example).

So at least according to NFL GMs, TE is the least valuable postion in the league.

Anonymous said...

I dont belive the TE is endangered of going away because most of the spread teams work in a tight end or H-back in many of there formations.

Anonymous said...

Be aware I was a 4 wide spread guy(WVU/Florida style but we threw it a good deal) and I thought the TE was an unnecessary postition as do many spread coaches and Paul Johnson.
In run based systems the TE is still a very valuable commodity. IF he can block and catch. We use a TE and he only blocks D linemen in a double team or combination block with the tackle. We never leave him alone to block a DL. We feel that he is not physically equipped. The play action potential of the TE position is as one poster said almost a trick play.
I saw Ralph Friedgen when he was still at GT as a coordinator and he thorows a good deal, very balanced guy and he said double tight double flanker is his favorite formation because it adds two extra gaps to the line but you still have to defend 4 receivers you wanna reduce down to take away off tackle and inside runs you are weak against pass, you wanna nickel it cause you have 4 wides pound it. It is such a dynamic postion and the postitioning of it makes timing and angles in both run and pass great in my opinion.
The other pain formation is TE trips or Pro trips (TE 2 flankers same side). Gotta defend trips which is an adjustment for any D but now you have an extra gap too. So tough.
Basically I think TE's put defenses in a bind in a lot of looks and are invaluable in the run and pass game

Matthew said...

Thanks Will, very helpful.

Anonymous said...

Brandon Pettigrew(as well as Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten) is an example of a protypical TE. All three of them has the ability to block one on one as well as catch the ball. I was excited when the Lions took Pettigrew in 1st round because Pettigrew was the best TE to come out of college in years. If you can find a TE like them, you get them unless you don't run an offensive system that doesn't involves TE.

Bellanca said...

Interesting insight that a TE consumes two guys, restoring arithmetic advantage, in a traditional O. Thanks.

Ferentz (Iowa) has remarked that their continued zone-running, play-action scheme makes them popular with the NFL, because Iowa therefore is still turning out trained fullbacks and TEs. (Iowa's last three TEs are in NFL camps today.) Iowa runs its four running plays until the safeties cheat, and next the tight end releases and slips downfield off the waggle and there's your 'trick play.' I always feel like I'm watching an abacus at work: 8 guys here, we go there. Only 7? Give it to Shonn. Nothing fancier than that. It seems to work for an execution-centric coach who wants to limit complexity and thereby reduce beta (variance).

Also interesting that now that the spread is everywhere, a run-first, FB-TE offense is now 'off-beat' for teams that spend most of the season preparing for four-wide.

My senior year in college, three decades ago, in one week, we put in an O with an undersized RB one yard back and split between the tackle and TE -- and listened to their linebackers scream in confusion to the sidelines at the POA mismatch all game long. The coaches here must know what that offense is, because no one ever named it for us, we just ran it and won a game. We didn't know that guy was an H back. I'm loving the focus on geometry and numbers at this blog.