Tight ends have become the new buzz word around Cal football. Whether it's from watching the New England Patriots wreck the NFL with their multiple tight end set, or scanning across the Bay at the success the Cardinal have had with multiple TEs, the Golden Bears clearly want in on it, and have made it an emphasis this offseason.
That's why when it comes to our offense, success or failure could center on how well 6'4, 265 pound sophomore tight end Richard Rodgers performs.
Jeff Tedford generally praises no one, but with Rodgers this fall the excitement was palpable each time his name was broached, calling him the "best TE in the country" despite never having caught a football last season. With regards to preseason buzz, Tedford has talked like this about four players before him: Marshawn Lynch, DeSean Jackson, Jahvid Best, and Keenan Allen. So I'd feel pretty confident that we're going to see some exciting things from Rodgers this year.
We start by looking back.
Modern history of multiple tight ends
As you may recall, Stanford employed tight ends to great success the past few seasons. Stanford's three tight end offense last season was just as much predicated on their personnel, as the Cardinal had only one solid wide receiving threat in Griff Whalen (and occasionally Chris Owusu and Ty Montgomery) to rely upon offensively. Also, the Cardinal had a particular scheme they wanted to stick with: A run-heavy offense that ground down the clock and wore out defenses. Cal has some pretty good weapons at the skill positions that they can try and utilize better than the Cardinal can though.
Cal is turning their eyes not to the Farm, but Foxboro for offensive innovation.
If the Patriots are the offensive model the Bears are looking to emulate, what Cal is looking for is something a bit more varied with their tight ends. Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski were the engine that spark-plugged the Patriots to another Super Bowl run. Here is what Chris Brown had to say in his awesome book that you should totally go buy now if you haven't already, The Essential Smart Football. (Partial article also available on Slate).
Hernandez is more of a pure receiver, and his chief advantage is as a substitution/personnel problem: if he's in the game, you don't know if he'll line up as a tight end or if he'll split wide so that [Wes] Welker can play the slot, forcing you to decide whether to put your cornerback on Welker or Hernandez, potentially creating advantages in both the running and passing games. But Gronkowsk is a true triple threat from the tight-end spot: He can block, he can go out for passes, and he can even block and then go out for delayed passes. Multiple defenders therefore have to keep their eyes on him.
The Bears are looking for Spencer Hagan (and possibly down the line, Maximo Espitia) to fill in that Hernandez role, and Rodgers to be their Gronkowski. It's a tall order, but if both of these things are accomplished, Cal's offense should reap the benefits.
1) H-back role
When we talk about the Patriots, we usually refer to the multiple tight end sets, but it's not quite that simple. While generally Gronkowski and Hernandez do typical tight end "line up next to the offensive tackles and do work" stuff, sometimes they'll progress beyond that.
We've seen a little of what Hagan can do and how well he fits in as a pure receiver, so in that phase of the game he matches up well with Hernandez. But Hernandez also does a lot of H-Back stuff too. Sometimes he'll go into the backfield and provide that versatility there.
What's the value of an H-back? Well, having a fullback is real nice for the downfield run game, but his primary responsibility is to run-block and pass-protect. With an H-back you have to account for his ability to not only do the things a fullback can do, but also release into the flats and catch passes. So that forces a linebacker to watch him. It was one of the ways Joe Gibbs used to neutralize Lawrence Taylor in those classic Redskins-Giants tilts back in the day.
Thanks to his experience at Florida with Tim Tebow, Hernandez is adept at lining up in the backfield and taking some handoffs or more likely shovel options (an inside pitch play), while also staying in to pass protect or going out of the backfield. Whether Hagan does any of that remains to be seen, but I imagine Cal would like to incorporate that into their offense.
With regards to the NFL, what you'll see is the Patriots like to put Hernandez in the backfield with running backs like Shane Vereen and force a blitzing linebacker to account for his presence. Sometimes Hernandez will get the ball directly, but other times he'll stay into pass protect, and other times you'll see him block at first before slipping out for a methodical six-eight yard completion. While I'm not sure how comfortable Hagan is with the running aspect, I can definitely see him try and provide conventional pass protection in the backfield while slipping out into the flats and catch passes.
2) Triple threat tight end
Brown refers to Gronk as a "triple threat", and Tedford seems to feel the same way about Rodgers. All reports from camp seem to indicate the same--a dynamic player who can do all the things you'd want a tight end to do. Stay in and pass block. Run block with the line. Go out wide and catch the football or block downfield on an outside run play. Pass catch in a conventional set, or even block and go out to pass catch. Everything you could possibly want from a tight end, Gronk can do. He even bros out.
Look at this nonsense. How do you guard a guy that big who can run a post route like that?
Gronkowski, along with Jimmy Graham of the Saints and Jermichael Finley of the Packers represent the cutting edge of new receiver for the modern NFL--players who have the speed to run like good wide receivers and the physicality to block like tight ends. Football Outsiders measured these three NFL offenses to be the most efficient in the league by miles, and the disparity grows even wider with regards to their passing attacks. It helps to have Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady as the QBs throwing to you, but you'd be crazy not to think that those hyper-athletic and versatile tight ends don't have a significant effect on how efficiently these offenses hum.
Most importantly of all, a triple threat tight end alleviates a lot of pressure on an offensive line in pass protection.
Why is that? If your tight end is not only a threat to catch but also has the ability to run a lot of the wide receiver tree route, then it's almost impossible to guard him in a straight zone scheme if the quarterback can land him the football.
That means you have to put someone on him. That someone generally has to be athletic, strong and stout. Cornerbacks are too small physically to really pop them, and defensive ends have no chance once the TEs slip to the second level of the field. Safeties are good for sticking them after the tackle, but by then the damage has been done.
So who would have to cover the tight end? Well, who's generally the most athletic and versatile player on defense? Your linebackers! So the same type of player who would probably be rushing the quarterback or plugging up the run now gets stuck having to chase around the tight end in the passing game.
So suddenly the defense is getting things dictated back to them. The defense can't send an all-out blitz with their linebackers unless they want to risk letting the TE roam free in the middle of the field or somewhere in open space.
Finally, if the defense doesn't have any linebacker strong enough to D him up one-on-one, they'll have to send multiple defenders to watch him. Suddenly, the offense will have the numbers advantage at the line of scrimmage for a run play, or (even better for Cal's purposes) they'll have plenty of time to manipulate coverage and find receivers downfield or even scramble for yards.
Does R. Rodgers have it in him to be that type of threat in his first season? With defenses likely to key in on Keenan Allen in the passing game and Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson in the run game, can Cal then go to Rodgers and expect him to play that Gronk-type role?
If Allen and Rodgers are lining up next to each other, does the defense dare risk putting two cornerbacks on them to cover them both and risk an outside toss sweep with both those guys blocking? Can Rodgers take advantage of having a smaller corner on him and run a receiver route one-on-one?
If the defense pulls out a linebacker to guard Rodgers, will the Cal offense try and execute an inside run or a zone read to the area the linebacker has vacated to take advantage of the numbers game?
If the defense decides to double-cover Rodgers with a hard zone because he's impossible to guard, where does the Bears offense go to take advantage of the rest of the field?
There are a lot of questions about how this new-look Cal offense will go, but there is also great potential in this new philosophy Tedford will be testing this season. And the best part is we get three years of Rodgers to make it work.
Cal Football 2012 Preview