Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski combined for 13 receptions, 189 yards, and 2 touchdowns against the Dolphins on Monday night. Yesterday they combined for 11 receptions, 143 yards, and 3 touchdowns against the Chargers. If you’ve been reading this blog throughout the summer then you know the hybrid position has been a common theme.
While I’m not certain the Patriots intended to incorporate two tight end sets immediately into their base offense when they drafted Hernandez and Gronkowski in 2010, I think they envisioned it. These are two very different types of players so redundancy wasn’t the intent.
As Greg Cosell mentioned here a few weeks ago, Gronkowski is a lot like Jason Witten – a strong, swift, prototypical in-line tight end. The only concern about his game as he entered the pros was a back injury. The fact that he was a second-round pick reflects the way scouts, coaches, and general managers could easily sign off on a player who fits into most offenses – or viewing it from another perspective, teams can take the path of least resistance to use his skills.
Hernandez on the other hand was a fourth-round pick. One of the surface reasons for his mid-round draft status was his youth and character issues. However, we’ve seen plenty of teams take players with these two “strikes” against them in the first or second round when they see game-changing athleticism from a player.
Hernandez has that game-changing athleticism, but what depressed his value was the fact that teams could not take the aforementioned path of least resistance to exploit his ability. He’s neither a true tight end nor a true wide receiver and teams lacking imagination and flexibility would have likely tried to force him into a role that didn’t come close to maximizing his potential.
If Jermichael Finley had to begin his career as a prototypical in-line tight end, I doubt he would have had near the promise he does today. Finley has gained the weight to become a passable in-line player, but he is still at his best as a slot player or offensive Joker. Green Bay is the ultimate spread offense.
However, New England turned that concept inside out with its two- and three-tight end approach and in many cases created additional flexibility with this scheme. Gronkowski is in a sense seen as the anchor that allows the Patriots to use run-heavy sets that can also morph into a strong passing set. But Hernandez is an equal part of the equation.
Where Gronkowski can stretch the seam, it’s Hernandez’s wide receiver-like acceleration and agility that forces opposing defenses into mismatches with Gronkowski. At the same time, Hernandez can help out as a run defender on the wing with seal blocks that he can execute effectively because Gronkowski can play on the line and do the heavier lifting.
I’m sure there’s a more football savvy and accurate explanation of this scheme’s origins, but it reminds me of a concoction of the Wildcat and the spread. The Pats multiple tight end sets are frequently unbalanced lines that the Wildcat used to create flexibility with its running game. Unlike the Wildcat, the two tight ends with the receiving skills of the Pats’ personnel creates more flexibility to throw the ball whereas the wildcat takes its quarterback out of position to be a multidimensional scheme.
Spread schemes rarely use tight ends but when the Pats can use Gronkowski in the slot and split Hernandez either to the slot or outside, they create a spread look that’s just as effective as a multiple wide receiver look. Frequently, it’s even more effective because the Patriots can come to the line in run-oriented sets and then spread the field if their opponent dictates this kind of change. Then they can run a hurry-up to force the defense to keep the same personnel on the field.
Consider Jene Bramel’s post on Belihick’s defense and his reluctance to use a label. Belichick’s logic that coaching personnel overrides coaching to a scheme is the same philosophical approach we’re seeing on the offensive side of the ball in New England. He’s finding football players and using molding the schemes to their strengths. Most teams take the opposite approach.
The Patriots are maximizing the flexibility of the tight end – the position long regarded as the position with some of the best athletes on the field. If you look at drafts starting five years ago, the Patriots have been searching for a tight end of Hernandez’s skill sets: Garrett Mills and Dave Thomas were smaller H-back types who stuck with the team for a while, but they never had a consistent impact. They lacked the elite hybrid athleticism of Hernandez.
We might look back and learn that they were actually test cases. Certainly the linebackers New England used as tight ends were an early stage of this scheme’s evolution. What we’re witnessing in New England is truly innovative. But when we look back upon the Belichick era of football we’re going to see a lot of philosophical and practical examples how of this great coach found ways to mold his approach to players rather than players to his approach. That’s his genius.