It might not be obvious, but Reggie White's role on the defensive line was the football equivalent of slang. Photo by Keith Fujimoto.

One of the pervading themes in this blog has been discussion of  the hybridization of football players:

  • The zone blitz and the evolution of the 3-4 linebacker/defensive end ‘tweener capable of dropping into coverage and sticking his hand in the ground and rushing off the edge.
  • The safety/cornerback capable of covering slot receivers and supporting the run.
  • The tight end/wide receiver capable of playing at the line of scrimmage and  split from the formation.

When I asked my colleagues about a significant trend in the sport, hybridization was the first thing on their mental checklist.

Although hybridization might be a trend, history shows it’s not new. Every athletic endeavor is about finding opportunities to exploit mismatches. The most common method is using schemes to force opponents into confusion. However, the most old-fashioned and effective way is finding players not restricted by the traditional definition of a position that can mutate into different roles based on what the team sees from its opponent before the snap.

These players with mutating roles are often known as “Jokers:”

  • The H-Back.
  • The strong side linebacker used as an open side defensive end.
  • The 3-4 outside linebacker in a zone-blitz scheme.
  • The running back/slot receiver.
  • The safety/corner.
  • The defensive tackle/defensive end.

The Eagles 10th overall pick in 1986 was Ohio State bell cow Keith Byars. He lacked the short area and lateral explosiveness to succeed as an NFL runner, but by 1988 Philadelphia discovered that Byars could block and catch the football and when they could match him with a linebacker he had a distinct advantage. This marked the beginning of six consecutive seasons with at least 55 receptions. Byars has been designated as a RB, FB, and TE, but he was best described as a Joker the Eagles could use at all three positions depending on what the defense presents them.

Much like Byars, Larry Centers,  the Cardinals fifth round pick in 1990, was a FB in name. However, he had 10 consecutive years with at least 50 receptions – 5 of those with at least 70 catches.

Lawrence Taylor was a joker. Linebacker was no longer just a read and react position after he got through with it. Mathias Kiwanuka had a joker role before he got hurt last year. Kiwanuka is technically listed as a strong side linebacker, but the Giants will move this natural defensive around the formation to generate strong match ups along the line and off the edge. We’ll see similar from the Broncos use of Von Miller this year.

Reggie White was both a defensive end and defensive tackle and he was moved around the line where he could wreak havoc. We’re about to see Ndamukong Suh do a White reprise – hopefully for years to come. It’s a big reason why the Lions drafted Nick Fairley, although his injury won’t dissuade the Detroit from moving Suh around.

Despite the statistical success many of these players had, it’s often difficult for the average fan to envision it happening until after the fact. This is why  I believe the Patriots offensive Joker Aaron Hernandez is undervalued in 2011.

Most teams don’t use two tight end sets as its base offense. And because Rob Gronkowski is an emerging player at the position in his own right – especially as a tight end defined in the traditional sense of the position – the average fan can’t imagine Aaron Hernandez seeing enough looks in a game as a receiver without the idea that Gronkowski’s stats will suffer.

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is not the joker Aaron Hernandez is, but is production will still be as serious as a heart attack. Photo by WBUR.

However, Hernandez is the perfect example of a Joker.  He’s technically a tight end, but more of an H-Back with wide receiver quickness and agility. His role can be continually redefined at the line of scrimmage. As needed, Tom Brady can move him into the backfield, the slot, the wing, split wide, the slot, or on the line of scrimmage.  He’s the ultimate chess piece and Tom Brady is a chess master who reads the board and maximizes the use of his pieces.

Yet to most fans, Hernandez is merely a No.2 tight end in an offense that has a great young prospect at the position.  The presumption is that Gronkowski and Hernandez will be competing for targets from the same position. On paper, the position is the same. On the field it couldn’t be any different.

Think of the English language. Slang is not an official part of the language but it has a powerful role in our culture. If it weren’t, the sentence Jim Brown was a bad football player wouldn’t be a compliment of the highest order.

Jokers are football’s version of slang. The position might be defined one way, but its role and practical use has a lot of unofficial, but powerful meanings that don’t exist on paper.

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