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The revolution was televised: Growth of tight ends in the NFL

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Last week, Gregg Olsen burned the New Orleans Saints for 134 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Jason Witten leads the Cowboys in touchdown grabs and is tied for the team lead in catches. New Orleans’ offense is searching for answers, in part because of the loss of Jimmy Graham, who led the team in receptions and touchdown catches last year. These are all examples of the increased importance of tight ends in the NFL passing game.

How Things Used to Be

Twenty-five years ago, tight ends were but a minor factor in NFL passing games, and only for a handful of teams. In 1990, Jay Novacek of the Dallas Cowboys led all tight ends with just 59 catches, and only two more were over 50. Many teams did not even prominently feature a tight end. Only 25 tight ends were targeted at least 25 times, less than one per team. League wide, only 14.4 percent of passes were thrown toward tight ends.

Five years later, in 1995, the environment had started to change. Ben Coates caught 84 passes as Drew Bledsoe’s go-to target in New England. For the first time, 40 tight ends were targeted at least 25 times. The percentage of passes to tight ends had jumped to 16.6 percent. The picture five years later was pretty much the same, just with Tony Gonzalez as the name atop the leaderboards.

The Changing Landscape of Tight Ends

The arrival of Gonzalez helped accelerate the pace of change once again with 2005 as the watershed year. For the first time, league-wide tight end target percentage topped 19 percent. A quarter of the teams in the league had one tight end with at least 100 targets. A dozen tight ends had at least 55 catches. The last total included a pair of Tennessee Titans, highlighting an important trend.

Teams in the past rarely used multiple tight ends, and when they did no more than one was a volume receiver. That changed beginning a decade ago and saw its peak with the versatile two tight end attack of the 2010 New England Patriots, the second-best offense since 1989 per Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.

Tight Ends Up, So Who Is Down?

The obvious question is, where did those tight end targets come from? The percentage of tight end targets is at 20 percent through three weeks of 2015, up from 14.4 percent in 1990. Which position is not getting thrown the ball as much? Table 1 has the answers.

Table 1. Target Percentage by Positions

1990 61.0% 14.4% 24.7%
1995 59.8% 16.6% 23.6%
2000 59.9% 16.7% 23.5%
2005 61.0% 19.1% 19.9%
2010 59.3% 19.8% 20.8%
2015* 60.2% 19.8% 20.0%

*-Through Week 3

The first column makes it clear that wide receiver target percentage has not changed much over the past 25 years. It stayed remarkably constant, in the 59-to-61-percent range. The increase in the use of tight ends in the passing game corresponds almost perfectly with a decrease in the use of running backs in the passing game.

There is no story where fewer running backs are catching passes. Teams are actually throwing just as many passes to running backs as they were 25 years ago. Instead, they are throwing many more passes in total and all those extra passes are going to wide receivers and tight ends.

The Shift in Tight End Efficiency

For most years since Mike Ditka virtually created the modern tight end position in the early 1960s, the tight end was an intermediate stop between the running back, a safe target unlikely to gain many yards, and the wide receiver, a risky target that gained more yards on average per throw. Yards per target make this clear, as shown in Table 2.

Table 2. Yards Per Target by Position, 1990-2005

1990 8.77 6.97 6.18
1995 7.68 6.74 5.60
2000 7.50 6.38 5.81
2005 7.52 6.55 5.42

For those seasons, the tight end stayed comfortably in that middle role. More recently, though, tight ends have become more like receivers in their efficiency.

Table 3. Yards Per Target by Position, 2010-2015

2010 7.58 7.03 5.84
2012 7.67 6.98 5.75
2014 8.01 7.25 5.89
2015* 7.97 7.55 6.25

*-Through Week 3

This is the new wave of hybrid tight ends in action, players who look and run more like big wide receivers, and who play more like them too.

How Defenses Have Responded, and What It Means

The challenge presented by the new wave of tight ends is defenses have to decide how to play them. Do they treat them as wide receivers, and match up to them with defensive backs at the risk of being outmanned in run defense? Do they instead treat them as normal players, and match up to them with their regular defensive personnel? Per data available through Football Outsiders, most teams treat do not treat tight ends as receivers. Teams were in their base four defensive back sets against 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends, two receivers) almost 80 percent of the time in 2014. Not quite the 90 percent of the time they fielded four defensive backs against 21 (two backs, one tight end, two receivers), but a far cry from the less than 7 percent of the time they fielded just four defensive backs against 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers)

As long as more receiving tight ends continue to come out of the collegiate ranks, and as long as teams continue to play tight ends with base personnel, expect tight ends to continue their rise to prominence in NFL passing games. Just don’t look for it on Sunday night, where Sean Payton is the rare NFL coach to keep passes to running backs in a place of prominence and the injury-riddled Cowboys threw more passes to running back Lance Dunbar than any other player last week.

Eagles fly to first Super Bowl win with memorable victory vs Patriots

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As their delirious fans sang their theme song and their owner lifted the Lombardi Trophy, the Philadelphia Eagles’ finally could breathe freely.

Yo, Philly, you really did beat Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in a thrilling Super Bowl that rewrote the offensive record book.

Nick Foles guided the drive of a lifetime, Zach Ertz made a bobbling touchdown catch that had to survive replay review, and an exhausted defense came up with not one but two stands in the final moments Sunday for a 41-33 victory. For the first time since 1960, the Eagles are NFL champions.

“Fly Eagles Fly,” indeed.

“We’ve played this game since we were little kids, we dreamed about this moment,” game MVP Foles said. “There’s plenty of kids watching this game right now dreaming about this moment and someday will be here.”

In a record-setting shootout between backup QB Foles and five-time champ Brady of the favored Patriots, Foles led a pressure-packed 75-yard drive to the winning touchdown, 11 yards to Ertz with 2:21 to go .

Then Brandon Graham strip-sacked Brady and Derek Barnett recovered, setting up rookie Jake Elliot’s 46-yard field goal for an 8-point lead.

Brady got his team to midfield, but his desperation pass fell to the ground in the end zone.

“For us, it was all about one stop we had to make. We went out here and made that one stop,” Graham said.

The underdog Eagles (16-3), even injured starting quarterback Carson Wentz, came bolting off the sideline in ecstasy while Brady sat on the ground, disconsolate.

It was the first Super Bowl title for Philadelphia (16-3), which went from 7-9 last season.

“If there’s a word (it’s) called everything,” Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said. “That’s what it means to Eagles fans everywhere. And for Eagles fans everywhere, this is for them.”

Super Bowl MVP Foles orchestrated the victory with the kind of drive NFL MVP Brady, a five-time champion, is known for. The drive covered 14 plays, including a fourth-down conversion.

“I felt calm. I mean, we have such a great group of guys, such a great coaching staff,” Foles said. “We felt confident coming in, and we just went out there and played football.”

The Eagles had to survive a video replay because ball pop into the air as Ertz crossed the goal line.

The touchdown stood — and so did thousands of green-clad Eagles fans who weren’t going to mind the frigid conditions outside US Bank Stadium once they headed out to celebrate. But not before a rousing rendition of “Fly Eagles Fly” reverberated throughout the stands once the trophy was presented to Lurie. Later, fans danced along with the “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme from “Rocky,” the city’s best-known fictional underdog.

The Patriots (15-4) seemed ready to take their sixth championship with Brady and coach Bill Belichick in eight Super Bowls. Brady threw for a game-record 505 yards and three TDs, hitting Rob Gronkowski for 4 yards before Stephen Gostkowski’s extra point gave New England its first lead, 33-32.

Then Foles made them forget Wentz — and least for now — with the gutsiest drive of his life.

“We couldn’t make a play to give the ball back to the offense,” Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore said.

Foles has been something of a journeyman in his six pro seasons, but he has been spectacular in four career playoff games. He finished 28 of 43 for 373 yards and three TDs.

The combined 1,151 yards were the most in any modern NFL game, and Brady’s 505 were the most in any playoff contest. The 40-year-old master finished 28 of 48 and picked apart the Eagles until the final two series.

It was such a wild game that Foles caught a touchdown pass , and Brady was on the opposite end of a Danny Amendola throw that went off his fingertips.

Eagles coach Doug Pederson brought home the championship in his second year in charge. Belichick is 5-3 in Super Bowls and his teams have only a plus-4 overall margin in those games.

So this one was in keeping with that trend: breathtaking and even a bit bizarre.

Brady and the Patriots looked ready for another comeback by opening the second half with a 75-yard touchdown drive. Gronkowski was unstoppable, grabbing four passes for 69 yards, including the 5-yard score.

Philly didn’t flinch, answering with a precise 75-yard march and three more third-down conversions; the Eagles were 10 for 16. The last was on Foles’ perfect pass to Clement over double coverage. The rookie’s reception was upheld by review, and the Eagles were back on top by 10.

Brady shrugged and, getting steadfast protection, connected with Chris Hogan from the 26 for another touchdown.

When all the Eagles could manage was Elliott’s 42-yarder for a 32-26 lead, it seemed inevitable the Patriots would go in front, then become the first repeat Super Bowl winner since they did it in the 2004 and ’05 games.

Foles, Ertz, and — at last — a revitalized defense said otherwise.

The weird image of Brady ambling downfield on a pass pattern came three plays after New England lost receiver Brandin Cooks to a concussion on a vicious but clean hit by Malcolm Jenkins in the second quarter. Amendola’s pass required an over-the-shoulder grab and the ball fell off Brady’s outstretched hands.

Brady got back to passing after a wild interception. Alshon Jeffery nearly made a spectacular catch near the Patriots’ goal line, only to juggle the ball into the air. Duron Harmon picked it off at the 10. Moments later, Brady was connecting with Chris Hogan for 42 yards.

James White broke several tackles with a brilliant 26-yard run and it was 15-12. That gave White seven touchdowns in his past three postseason games, including the overtime winner in last year’s Super Bowl.

But the Eagles still had 2:04 left in the half — and some more magic in their bag.

A short third-down throw to rookie Corey Clement on a circle route turned into a 55-yard explosion down to the Patriots 8. Philly got to the 1 and on fourth down, it was Foles’ turn to morph into a receiver.

He did better than Brady. On fourth down, Clement took a direct snap, pitched to tight end Trey Burton, and the former Florida QB hit an uncovered Foles. The Eagles were up 22-12 at halftime, the most points New England has allowed in the opening half of a Super Bowl under Belichick.

Each team started with 67-yard drives to field goals — New England had never scored a first-quarter point with Brady in a Super Bowl.

Each kicker later faltered, with Elliott missing the extra point, his fifth failed PAT this season, after Jeffery’s 34-yard touchdown. Then Gostkowski hit the left upright with a 26-yard field goal after holder Ryan Allen mishandled the snap. Gostkowski also missed an extra point.

When LeGarrette Blount, who won the title last season with the Patriots, scored on a 21-yard burst, Pederson went for 2, but the pass failed, making it 15-3.

The Eagles and Pederson brushed it off and stayed with their usual aggressive approach. Breathtakingly, it eventually paid off.

Eagles’ rush could be key vs. Patriots’ Brady

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MINNEAPOLIS — Neither New England nor Philadelphia is a tropical paradise, so for the Patriots and Eagles, the Minnesota winter weather has been pretty normal for them. That’s a good thing as both teams head into their Super Bowl LII meeting on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium trying to treat it like just another 60-minute game.

After the media circus they endured Monday in St. Paul, the players for both the Patriots (15-3) and the Eagles (15-3) welcomed the opportunity to get back to some semblance of normal game week preparation and to focus on the football, even if it’s in a new place.

“We’ve got to go out and practice and kind of get away from the madness,” said Philadelphia defensive end Fletcher Cox on Wednesday after the Eagles practiced at the University of Minnesota. “I just treat it as a regular game week. Things I would do at the facility, I’m doing here.”

Road to Super Bowl LII: Stream, start time, highlights and more

One thing the Eagles did successfully at home and on the road all season was pressure the opponent’s quarterback, and when the Patriots have faltered in two Super Bowl losses to the Giants in the past decade, a relentless pass rush has contributed. But the highly touted Eagles defense, which did not allow a point after the Vikings’ opening drive of the NFC title game, is wary about putting too much of their attention on Patriots star Tom Brady.

“It’s Tom plus 10 guys on the field. We can’t just focus on one guy, if we’re going to be real about it,” Cox said. “I think we have to focus on their whole offense, because they’ve got a lot of great players. We have to go out and be ourselves. We’ve got to go out and do the little things right and not beat ourselves in order to be victorious.”

New England tight end Rob Gronkowski, who missed the second half of the AFC title game win over Jacksonville due to a concussion, is slated to play.

“Rob’s a tough guy. Obviously, this isn’t something you can just fight through,” said Brady.

While the Patriots offense has revolved around Brady since their first Super Bowl win in 2002, the defense has been one of constant evolution, and the unit adopted yet another new look late in the regular season when linebacker James Harrison came on board after he was jettisoned by the Steelers.

“When you’re in a system for as long as he’s been, there are a lot of things that are habits that get ingrained, which they should be. Some of those things carry over. Some of them kind of don’t,” Belichick said of Harrison, who has played 178 of his 193 NFL regular-season games for Pittsburgh. “He’s done a great job of trying to separate them and do what we’ve asked him to do.”

While the Eagles will be looking for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title, having lost the big game after the 1980 and 2004 seasons, there may be more pressure on the Patriots, who will be seeking their sixth title and their second in a row, knowing that the coaching staff will look significantly different next season. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are both widely expected to be head coaches in Indianapolis and Detroit, respectively, next season.

“I realize and I understand and I appreciate the talent in the coaches in our building. I’m grateful for the opportunity to even be coached by them,” said Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola, sounding very much like he was saying goodbye. “Whatever their opportunities are in the future, I’ll be excited for them.”

There’s one more opportunity for them on Sunday. And it sounds plenty exciting.