There are many fascinating aspects of schematics in football, but few are new because football's a cycle.
The recent tight end outburst is no exception to the cycle, as it dates back to the 1970s and '80s when the Detroit Lions and San Diego Chargers were slicing coverages week-in and week-out. Both teams moved their tight ends all over the line of scrimmage, which is also being done today.
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick explained the connection between the use of his tight ends, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, and the Detroit Lions' 1970s tight ends in a press conference that Yahoo!'s Jason Cole wrote about in January.
“Yeah, that was really the first – I mean, honestly there wasn’t a lot of two tight ends in the mid-70s, there really wasn't," Belichick said. “There was one tight end in the game and occasionally teams used two tight ends in short yardage, but that’s kind of where the two tight ends and one [running] back [started]. And then [coach Don] Coryell and San Diego and so forth, it became a little more prevalent. But when we had Charlie Sanders and David Hill at Detroit, those two guys were pretty good.”
As Belichick notes, the two-tight end tandem wasn't all that popular, but he helped make it popular as the Lions' wide receivers and tight ends coach in the late '70s. Now he's doing the same with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who are likened to "queens on the chessboard."
What makes the Patriots duo so dangerous is that they can line up in a variety of alignments without having to be substituted because they are versatile enough to handle the responsibilities assigned to others in different personnel groupings.
They can line up in a standard two-tight end set that sees them at the ends of the offensive line, have both tight ends to a side (one as a Wing) and block, one in the backfield while another is flexed out or both out of the tackle box as well as used as satellite players as pictured below.
The possibilities are endless with the two tight ends, especially Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez is different than Gronkowski in that he lines up more in the backfield in a halfback role than Gronkowski does, is not nearly as bullish of a blocker and has more finesse overall. However, that hasn't diminished his contributions, as he has the versatility to move anywhere on the field and create a mismatch.
As Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith said to Jason Cole, "you never have the right personnel on the field". The reason is because they "..move those guys around according to how the defense is trying to defend you. If you want to play standard personnel on defense, they flex one or both of those guys out and force you to cover them with linebackers. If you put extra defensive backs in, they line up in double-[tight end] and maul you."
New York Giants safety Antrel Rolle shared Smith's sentiments when he commented, “It’s not tricky, it’s just tough because you have to be on top of everything you do with them.”
He further commented, “We all get the idea of the formations. That’s not new. It’s just that they can do it anytime without having to sub. … Other teams, when they change personnel between plays, they’re giving you some idea about what they’re going to do.”
Of course, the Patriots aren't the only ones to cause defensive coordinators headaches with their tight ends. The New Orleans Saints have done a good job of this as well, most notably with the roving Jimmy Graham.
Unlike Gronkowski, Graham operates as basically an over-sized receiver that does most of his work in the slot, where he can run down the pipe of defenses and soar over defensive backs, most of which are under 6'0". Graham is more than 6'6" tall and is built like a small forward in basketball, which has drawn him comparisons to arguably the greatest roving 'Y' in NFL history: Antonio Gates.
Like Gates, Graham is a threat from all over the field and has been used in similar ways to those of the legendary Kellen Winslow of the San Diego Chargers in the '80s under the direction of offensive mastermind Don Coryell.
This comes as no surprise because New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton implemented a significant amount of the "Air Coryell" offense (along with the West Coast offense) when he was hired by the New Orleans Saints.
Don Coryell and his offense have been a significant influence on coaches when it comes to the use of tight ends (as well as overall offensive structure), and he will continue to be an influence as teams look to expand the ways they use their athletes.
We're likely to see more teams use multiple-tight end sets to dictate defensive personnel, who will continue to be moved around.
There is the possibility of teams using stacked and bunched sets with tight ends to cause problems for defensive backs by getting more physical than receivers typically do. It's also likely that teams will look to find halfbacks that are equivalent to Aaron Hernandez, who can move around all over the line and even carry the ball, which he'll likely do more than he did his first two seasons.