Travis Kelce, Super Bowl 54, 10 receptions for 133 yards. Rob Gronkowski, Super Bowl 52, 9 receptions for 116 yards and two touchdowns. Vernon Davis, Super Bowl 47, 6 receptions for 104 yards. Dan Ross, Super Bowl 16, 11 receptions for 104 yards and two touchdowns.
Those are the four tight ends who have put up more than 100 receiving yards in a Super Bowl. Apart from Dan Ross, who achieved the feat in 1982, those games all come in the last 10 years (at the time of writing). They also, coincidentally, were all on the losing side. But what they demonstrate most of all is the increasing importance of tight ends, even in football’s biggest game.
The role of the tight end has been slowly changing for decades and Tyler Dunne’s book profiles 15 players who led that change, from Mike Ditka in the 1960s, to George Kittle today (4 for 36 in Super Bowl 54).
The players he profiles are driven and frequently quite odd. We hear about Shannon Sharpe driving Derrick Thomas over the edge by reciting his girlfriend’s phone number to him, for example, and Jeremy Shockey punishing himself for drinking by doing 100 push-ups after a night out.
Dunne argues that tight ends are typically unorthodox, which comes from playing a position that retains the brutality of old-school football while being fully enmeshed in the modern offensive attack. One minute a tight end could be tearing downfield on a deep route versus a safety and the next he might be bashing heads with a blitzing defensive end.
This book does a good job of explaining the tight end’s role and profiling the men who changed the position.
Tyler Dunne is the founder of Go Long, a newsletter dedicated to long-form pro football journalism. He has previously written for Bleacher Report, the Buffalo News and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
This exact predicament was what triggered one of the greatest schematic evolutions in the sport. Through the ‘70s, the Oakland Raiders were the toast of the AFC West and played the Chargers man to man with a free safety over the top. Then, Winslow sifted on out wide. A linebacker couldn’t cover him. A safety couldn’t. The Raiders had zero choice but to replace a linebacker with a cornerback. “And that’s when people started playing what’s called a nickel defense,” Bauer says. “Because of Kellen Winslow.” The Chargers always had a dangerous third option at wide receiver, too, so defenses were soon forced to replace two linebackers with two defensive backs. And the dime defense was born. All because of this chess piece of a tight end who fittingly played on his high school’s chess team because his mother wouldn’t let him play football until his senior year.
Dunne is interested in what kind of person plays the tight end position and his interviews answer that question comprehensively. The Blood and Guts is essentially a collection of standalone interviews with tight ends, so you could dip in and out. But that would miss some of the connections Dunne draws between the tight ends he covers. Several of them find their own way to football, and the tight end position, for example, rather than being pushed by a parent or coach. And pretty much all of them were toughened in childhood, from Jimmy Graham’s shocking tale of parental abandonment to Rob Gronkowski’s more comical, Jackass-style relationship with his brothers. Each chapter is engaging on its own, filled with on-field heroics, sideline bust-ups and childhood exploits, but they come together to build a satisfyingly complete picture.
Shane Richmond, Pigskin Books
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Photo: Angie Six