This Super Bowl Sunday, the most important factor determining whether the New England Patriots or New York Giants walk away with the Lombardi trophy might not be a quarterback, a coach, or a defense. It might be the health of a tight end.
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who scored the most touchdowns in the NFL this season, is day to day with a left ankle injury, and it probably won’t be clear until Sunday if he can play. If he can’t, the Patriots quarterback Tom Brady loses his biggest offensive weapon, and the Patriots – though still dangerous – clearly become easier to defend.
That a tight end could be a Super Bowl team's second most important player is a measure of how much the position has changed in the past 50 years. Long the bellwether of football evolution, tight ends are the Swiss Army knives of an offense. First used primarily as extra linemen, they have now become receivers in their own right, combining a lineman's size, a running back's speed, and hands as soft as the best wide receivers.
In short, the best of them present defensive coordinators with no-win propositions: Cover them with linebackers who are too slow or defensive backs who are too small?
This year, the 6-foot, 5-inch, 265-pound slab of a man called “Gronk” had 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns – a record at the tight end position. But he's just one part of the evolution.
In New Orleans, Saints tight end Jimmy Graham had a banner year right along with Gronkowski – both men broke Kellen Winslow’s 31-year-old single-season record for receiving yards (1,290) on the same day. In San Francisco, Vernon Davis co-led the NFL in touchdown receptions in 2009 and was one of the biggest playmakers this year on a team that finished one game short of the Super Bowl.
It marks a radical departure from when the position first came into being a half-century ago, as football teams started using separate squads for offense and defense. Then, the tight end was primarily used as an extra blocker – someone who could serve on an offensive line but also have enough athleticism to protect against the blitz from faster defensive backs.
Since Ditka, as the NFL has shifted more toward quarterback-centric offenses, the role of a tight end has shifted, too. Playing for the San Diego Chargers in the 1980s, Winslow was among the first tight ends fast enough to run long wide receiver routes. That trend continued in the 1990s with the Denver Broncos’ Shannon Sharpe, the first tight end to amass 10,000 yards receiving in his career.
Today, the tight end tandem of Gronkowski and teammate Aaron Hernandez has become integral to the Patriots’ offense. The two had more combined receiving yards than any tight end duo in NFL history.
Between them, they create even more permutations for defensive matchup problems: The smallish, quick Hernandez is essentially a wide receiver deployed from a wide array of positions. Patriots coach Bill Belichick sometimes uses him as a receiver running routes and sometimes as a running back lining up behind Brady.
So, Gronk or no Gronk, how do the Giants beat the Patriot tight ends on Sunday?
They may not have to; the Giants didn’t shut down Gronkowski or Hernandez when they beat the Patriots in November, but the pass rush did shut down Brady. If Brady doesn't have time to connect with them, Gronkowski and Hernandez can’t be nearly as devastating as they have been all year.