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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

Year WR TE RB
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

Year WR TE RB
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

Year WR TE RB
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.

Don Ohlmeyer, longtime network TV executive, dies at 72

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. (AP) — Don Ohlmeyer, the “Monday Night Football” producer who came up with the phrase “Must See TV” in leading NBC to the No. 1 prime-time spot, died Sunday. He was 72.

“It is with heavy hearts we share that Don Ohlmeyer, our beloved husband, father and grandfather, has passed away at age of 72 due to cancer,” Ohlmeyer’s family said in a statement. “Surrounded by loved ones, he died peacefully at his home in Indian Wells.”

Longtime friend Al Michaels announced Ohlmeyer’s death while broadcasting NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” game between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants.

Ohlmeyer won 16 Emmys, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, and two Peabody Awards.

Ohlmeyer became producer of “MNF” in 1972, teaming with director Chet Forte and the on-air crew of Howard Cosell, Don Meredith and Frank Gifford. In 2000 in his second “MNF” stint, Ohlmeyer put comedian Dennis Miller in the booth.

Ohlmeyer first worked for ABC Sports as a gofer while studying at Notre Dame and became a full-time production assistant in 1967 under Roone Arledge, working on “Wide World of Sports.” Along with his “Monday Night Football” work, he directed the network’s Olympic coverage and created “The Superstars.” Later at NBC Sports, he produced World Series and Super Bowl broadcasts.

After running his own Ohlmeyer Communications Company, he returned to NBC in 1993 as president of its entertainment division. He came up with “Must See TV” in the 1990s, when NBC’s rating soared with such hits as “Seinfeld,” ”Friends,” ”ER” and “Frasier.”

Watch Live: New York Giants vs. Dallas Cowboys on NBC

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The Dallas Cowboys host the New York Giants in a battle of NFC East rivals on Sunday Night Football.

Despite going 13-3 and earning the No. 1 seed in the playoffs last year, the Cowboys lost twice to the Giants in 2016, including a loss in Week 1. Dallas hopes to not have a repeat of last year and will rely on sophomores Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott to carry the load. Don’t be surprised if Elliott gets even more carries in this game because there is a possibility his six-game suspension is upheld and he will have plenty of time to rest up before he sees game action again.

The Giants will rely on their strong defense led by DB Landon Collins and DE Jason Pierre-Paul to try and get after Prescott and bottle up Elliott. On offense, New York is all about Eli Manning and the passing attack. Odell Beckham Jr. is expected to suit up, but it remains to be seen how big of a role he will have after injuring his ankle in the preseason. As a result, look for new additions WR Brandon Marshall and rookie TE Evan Engram, to go along with sophomore WR Sterling Shepard to step up for Manning.

Football Night in America

Start time: 7:00 p.m. ET

TV channel: NBC

Live stream: NBCSports.com, NBC Sports app

Giants vs. Cowboys

Start time: 8:30 p.m. ET

TV channel: NBC

Live stream: NBCSports.com, NBC Sports app