To trace the evolution of the position is to trace the evolution of football, from its power-running roots to today's aerial look. Clark and Cooley are two of the more prolific tight ends of the past decade—Clark has averaged 78 receptions over the last three seasons; Cooley had 69 per season from '05 to '08 but missed nine games last year—but even their styles have their antecedents in the recent past. The bulldozing, pass-catching contemporaries Mike Ditka and John Mackey in the 1960s ultimately gave way to speedsters like Newsome and Kellen Winslow in the late '70s and early '80s, as offenses began to open up. In San Diego, coach Don Coryell began moving Winslow to different spots to give him space to use his speed and create mismatches against linebackers. In Cleveland, where Newsome was drafted out of Alabama as a receiver, coach Sam Rutigliano converted him to tight end, giving the Browns a versatile weapon to better combat the dominant defensive schemes of division-rival Pittsburgh.
"The Steelers won the Super Bowl in 1978 and 1979 playing Cover Two," Newsome says. "They were trying to take away the two outside receivers with corners and safeties over the top. [The Browns] wanted someone who could impact the middle of the field, and that's why they converted me."
Players such as Newsome, Winslow and the Raiders' Raymond Chester and Dave Casper were precursors to the tight end in the three-receiver sets so prevalent in offenses today. Not every tight end, however, has enjoyed the philosophical shift away from lining up next to a tackle to moving around in a formation. "I was in the slot a couple of times, but I didn't like it," says Mark Bavaro, who played tight end for nine seasons and won Super Bowls with the Giants in the 1986 and '90 seasons. "I would fall into the category of a guy with his hand on the ground. I was fast, and I didn't drop many balls, but my first job was to block. I liked having my opponent a couple inches from my face. If you were going to play for [coach] Bill Parcells and [offensive coordinator] Ron Erhardt, you had to block."
How would Bavaro have fared in today's NFL? "If I had to play now I could, but I'd miss the blocking," Bavaro says. "Today's game is like a glorified seven-on-seven [passing] drill, all spread out. You're measuring skills against skills. Back then you measured toughness against toughness. It's not good or bad—it's just different."
Redskins coach Mike Shanahan says the key—even in today's game—is to find a tight end who is a skilled receiver and blocker (though, clearly, the more he's catching passes downfield, the less he is staying home and clearing lanes for runners or protecting the quarterback). The lure of the playmaking tight end is strong, and nearly every team has at least one and sometimes more because of the problems they present a defense. Clark and Cooley, both 6' 3" and roughly 250, flip-flop to either side of the line of scrimmage and are constantly in search of a profitable matchup.
"Linebackers are used to playing inside that seven-man box, and all of a sudden you're forced to go into bump coverage, split outside," says Ryan Nece, who played 'backer for the Buccaneers and the Lions from 2002 to '08. "That takes a different skill set. If a defensive back gets beat, he still might sense when a ball is coming and put his hand up or turn around. If a linebacker gets beat, he's in panic mode. You see him get pass interference called, or he just gets beat. At this level, and with a quarterback like Peyton Manning, you only need a crease to succeed."
The league's toughest tight end to cover has to be Gates, the 6' 4", 260-pound former college power forward who has been upending defensive playbooks almost from the moment he stepped on the field. In his first season, 2003, he averaged 16.2 yards a catch. In his second he caught 13 touchdowns. This year Gates extended his streak of games with at least one touchdown catch to nine, which put him in the company of wide receivers such as Lance Alworth, Carl Pickens, Randy Moss and Jerry Rice. (The streak ended on Sunday when he left San Diego's 20--17 loss to St. Louis with an ankle injury.)
"The first touchdown he ever caught was a corner route," says Doug Flutie, the former Chargers quarterback who threw it. "Because he was so athletic, he could keep people's hands off him and get that inside release down by the goal line and then get back out. I just put it up in the corner and he went and got it. His receiving skills, eye-hand and body control were never in question. By halftime I realized, This guy's a weapon."
Neither Cooley nor Clark were sure they'd even play pro football. When Cooley was a freshman tight end at Utah State, a teammate told him he'd never make it to the NFL. As a senior Cooley caught 62 passes for 732 yards and six touchdowns. Washington took him in the third round in 2004.
Clark's rise was more unlikely. He walked on at Iowa as a linebacker and was mired on the third string until the coaches spotted him playing catch with the quarterback and decided to move him to tight end before his sophomore season. He soon realized his time as a linebacker had not been in vain. He understood why defenses succeed and fail—the latter by missing assignments and tackles and losing leverage on an offensive player—and he learned to exploit weaknesses that had once been his own. "You know what defenses are trying to do, or what linebackers in certain coverages are trying to do," Clark says. "You understand how they work as a unit. It really helped. It was, 'This was tough for me as a linebacker. Now I know what his problem is.' "