What Year is It?
Coming into 2011 ESPN made the determination that they would market 2011 as the Year of the Quarterback. They had specific historical and current programming to be marketed with this as well as unveiling the new QBR rating system in an attempt to replace the less analytical Quarterback Rating statistic. What did they get in return? They got a season where two quarterbacks broke the all-time record for single season passing yards and a third crossed the 5,000 yard mark and was only 50 yards shy of the record despite playing four weeks with a broken hand. That would seem rather prescient on their part, if you want the truth. But if you look closely both at this season and (as a nice microcosm of the season) last weekend’s games it would have been even more prescient to have titled this as the Year of the Tight End.
Now it isn’t new this year to have tight ends as a more important part of the offense. This trend probably started its rise with Shannon Sharpe and Tony Gonzalez around a decade and a half ago (if you want to pin down a genesis) and then picked up steam with the likes of Dallas Clark, Jason Witten, and Antonio Gates (with Gates and Gonzalez as the “godfathers” of the new breed of Tight End that is more basketball player than football player). But this year was the eruption of what has been building at the Tight End position. Much like at the quarterback position, there were not one but two tight ends that broke the all-time single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end. Both of those tight ends (Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham) had more yards receiving at their position than the NFL leader in receiving yards, at ANY position, three different years in the 1980’s. Additionally 5 different tight ends led their respective teams in receiving yards while an additional 6 were second on their teams in receiving yards. That means that on over 33% of teams in the NFL the tight end was one of the two most important receivers on the team. In the cases of the two record-breaking quarterbacks, Drew Brees’ #1 receiver was TE Jimmy Graham, and not only was TE Rob Gronkowski the #2 target for Tom Brady, but TE Aaron Hernandez was his #3 target as well. So for a QB that threw for 5,200 yards, 2,200+ yards of that was to his two tight ends.
Last weekend in the Patriots game Gronkowski had over 100 yards and 3 TD’s while Hernandez had over 100 total yards, was the leading RUSHER on the team (and was only 15 yards behind Denver’s leading rusher as well) and had a Touchdown. They combined for 200 receiving yards, 61 rushing yards, and 4 TD’s. And that was only the 2nd best Tight End showcase of the weekend. The New Orleans/San Francisco matchup was an amazing showcase of the importance of the tight end. The opposing tight ends (Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis) combined for 283 yards and 4 TD’s including each of them catching a go ahead touchdown with less than 1:40 left in the game. They had clutch catches during those drives as well. It truly was a beautiful display. And with San Francisco and New England still alive in the playoffs it is very likely that the position will again play a key factor in who will get to the Super Bowl.
Alex Smith may not be a bust (a.k.a. the system matters…)
Alex Smith was the #1 pick in the NFL draft out of Utah and for the better part of six years the common thought has been that he was another QB that was great in college but it must have been the system he was under in college that made him good, because he just can’t cut it in the NFL. It wasn’t thought that the fact that he has had 7 offensive coordinators in 7 years with 7 systems might be an issue. It also wasn’t thought that if it was system driven in college then it’s possible it will be system driven in the pros. What we learned this weekend is that in a year where there was an abbreviated offseason and very little chance to work with him before the year, Jim Harbaugh and his staff were able to put in a system and work with Alex to strengthen his confidence and get him comfortable so that he could flourish. And he could not have flourished more than he did in the 4th quarter of Sunday’s game. He threw for 1 yard shy of 300 with 3 TD’s, no turnovers, and a 28 yard TD run. He led 2 go ahead drives in the last 5 minutes of the 4th quarter. He made the right decision time and time again. Jim Harbaugh had called him a Pro Bowler earlier in the year and he sure looked like one on Sunday.
So in a broader sense, the public should realize that most quarterbacks (and players in general)will only be great in certain systems. Joe Montana would very likely not have been the Joe Montana we know if he were not in Bill Walsh’s interpretation of the West Coast offense. It is very likely that Tom Brady would not necessarily have been as great as he is outside of New England. Sure there are some exceptions. I believe that Peyton Manning would succeed in any system. But take Brett Favre. Do you realize that the Falcons released him when he had been their 3rd string QB? Green Bay proved to be right for him to really learn how to be a great player. I recently read Patriot Reign, where the author had 2 years of access to the Patriots’ front office in the early 2000’s. It makes perfect sense, but I was very interested to see that their front office personnel were never graded or critiqued on a player that they passed on in the draft that was great for another team. They believe that you cannot assume that that player would have done the same for the Patriots. What they are held accountable for are the players that they bring into New England that don’t live up to expectations. Fans would do well to factor that in when they evaluate/criticize/rant on sports radio/rant on message boards about decisions that are made by their front office folks.
Conference Championship Weekend
So now we have reached Conference Championship Weekend with one matchup that NO ONE predicted before the season and one that was plausible. San Francisco definitely seems to be wearing Cinderella’s slippers while the Giants are looking like a team that is walking the path they walked a few years ago when they got hot at the right time and hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. In the AFC you have a proficient offense and suspect defense on one side (New England) and a suspect offense and proficient defense on the other (Baltimore). While I find it hard to believe that it will be quite as exhilarating as last weekend, we should have a solid pair of games. So here are The Picks!