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Did Bill Belichick Invent the Two Tight End Offense?

Gronk can catch, block, and spike.

Gronk can catch, block, and spike..

Here’s the short answer: No.

The Cincinnati Bengals appear to be moving to a two-tight end offense in 2013, with first round pick Tyler Eifert joining former first rounder Jermaine Gresham. Since Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez began dominating the league, the two-tight end offense has become back in vogue in the NFL.

I say “back” because contrary to popular belief, the two-tight end offense didn’t begin with Bill Belichick’s Patriots. Only one team in NFL history has seen its top two leaders in receptions both play tight end, and it wasn’t a team coached by Belichick. That team was the 1998 Titans, with Les Steckel as offensive coordinator. Tennessee had bought high on Yancey Thigpen after the 1997 season, a move that backfired immediately; instead, 27-year-old Frank Wycheck and 30-year-old Jackie Harris led the team in receptions, and each started 16 games.  Seven years later, this time under Norm Chow, Erron Kinney and Ben Troupe each caught 55 passes, just three behind leader Drew Bennett.  The fourth leader in receptions was another tight end, Bo Scaife. The 2005 Titans really liked their tight ends.

Wes Welker led the 2011 Patriots in receptions and receiving yards, but Gronkowski and Hernandez were second and third in both categories.  In addition to those Titans teams, here are some other franchises that had multiple tight ends finish in the top three in receptions:

  • One edition of the Mike Shanahan/Gary Kubiak Broncos make the list. In 2001, Desmond Clark (51 catches) and Dwayne Carswell (34 catches as the blocking tight end) were the only other Broncos with more than 15 receptions. Of course, Rod Smith caught 113 balls that season.
  • Jim Mora’s 1995 Saints ran a two-tight end offense behind the team’s top offensive weapon, Quinn Early. Wesley Walls, before he starred in Carolina, caught 57 passes for 694 yards that season, while Irv Smith started 16 games and caught 45 passes for 466 yards.
  • John Robinson’s Rams appear twice on the list.  In 1988, with Ernie Zampese as offensive coordinator (and Norv Turner as tight ends coach), Los Angeles went 10-6 and finished third in the league in points scored with Jim Everett at quarterback. The offensive star was Henry Ellard, but Pete Holohan (59-640-3) and Damone Johnson (42-350-6 in 16 starts) were the only other players with more than 30 receptions. In 1985, under “rookie” sensation Dieter Brock, Tony Hunter and David Hill finished behind Ellard in receptions, as the team ran a two-tight end offense in lieu of putting a fullback in front of Eric Dickerson.
  • A couple hundred miles south, Zampese and Don Coryell had a 2-TE offense in 1984. That year, Charlie Joiner led the team with 61 receptions, but Pete Holohan (56 catches for 734 yards in 15 games) and Kellen Winslow (55 catches for 663 yards in just seven games) finished second and third in receptions. A third tight end, Eric Sievers, caught 41 passes in 13 starts. Winslow, Sievers, and Holohan started 28 games for San Diego in 1983, too.
  • That wasn’t unusual for 1984. The Oilers were horrible that season, but tight ends Jamie Williams and Chris Dressel each started 16 games and caught 40 passes for the team, finishing second and third in catches. In New England, tight end Derrick Ramsey (66-792-7) led the team in all receiving categories, while TE Lin Dawson started 15 games and caught 39 passes.

The 1979 Raiders had an embarrassment of riches at the position, as Oakland sent Raymond Chester (58-712-8) and Dave Casper (57-771-3) to the Pro Bowl.  The next season, Casper would be part of an Oilers team that traded for him in mid-season and started two tight ends and a fullback (with just one wide receiver) next to Earl Campbell. Casper caught 56 passes for 796 yards with the Raiders and Oilers that year, while Houston’s other tight end Mike Barber had 59 receptions for 712 yards.

In the mid-’70s, the Jets top receiving weapons were Jerome Barkum and Rich Caster, two players who alternated between playing tight end and wide receiver.

I think you get the point. Starting two tight ends, or having two tight ends as the key weapons in a team’s passing game, is nothing new. The prevalence of the second tight end dipped in the ’90s and early part of the last decade; but now that the fullback is being phased out of the game, just about every team is running two-tight ends or three-wide receivers as their base personnel.

  • This post reminded me of something I always have found bizarre: the 1983 Vikings’ top three receivers (in receptions) were all running backs: Darrin Nelson, Tony Galbreath, and Ted Brown. I’m not sure how unusual that actually is, but it’s the only team I happen to have run across to do that.

    In the brief Brian Griese era, it seemed like the Broncos threw to tight ends a ton, and I guess they did indeed do so, though it was so extreme in 2001 in large part because of the fact that Ed McCaffrey went out September 10 and missed the rest of the season. Eddie Kennison would probably have at least challenged Carswell for third in catches that year as well had he not retired for a few weeks in the middle of the season.

  • Kibbles

    More like the 2005 Titans really hated their wide receivers.

    • Tom Gower

      What’s not to love about Tyrone Calico after getting Roy Williams’ed, third-round rookie Brandon Jones until he got hurt, third-round rookie Courtney Roby until he got hurt, and yet another rookie in fourth-rounder Roydell Williams? Can’t imagine how all those guys didn’t catch at least 100 passes!

  • bengt

    I guessed at one of the Air Coryell Chargers teams, but only because I recently read that chapter in ‘The games that changed the game’.
    What I would have expected is one of the recent teams with a TE-in-name-only, e.g. the Dallas Clark Colts, especially after Marvin Harrison retired. Did you file him under WR?

  • Marc

    Marcus Pollard and Ken Dilger were both starters for the Colts at the turn of the millenium (c.1997-2002). Pollard and Dallas Clark also started simultaneously for some games.

  • dsjz59

    The 2 TE formation has been around for a long time, primarily used to get an extra blocker on the line in short yardage situations. However, If we’re talking about this being the primary formation employed by an NFL team, the first team since the merger would be the 1982-83 Redskins, where a 2 WR, 2 TE, 1FB set was used by Coach Gibbs. The 1980 Oilers mention is valid, but this was not done as a premeditated strategy, but of necessity because star WR Ken Burrough was injured. The Jets mention is not accurate, they used Caster as a WR during his rookie year in 1971, then he was the TE until 1977, this is when the Jets moved Barkum (who only played flanker until that time) to TE and Caster to WR. So the Jets really did not use Caster and Barkum in 2 TE sets. Websites like pro-football reference, incorrectly identify player positions frequently for teams in the ’70s, example: listing Barkum as a TE in 1972 and 1976. He played WR those seasons.