Chris Cooley begins his warmup routine before each game the same way. He and Redskins backup quarterback John Beck grab a football and see which player can most often hit the crossbar with various throws from the field. When they finish, Cooley gets serious. He seeks out the opposing tight end to talk about their shared existence at the vanguard of a football renaissance.
On Sunday night at FedEx Field, Cooley's opposite was Colts tight end Dallas Clark, a player with whom Cooley is often compared for their ability to outfox defenders and their willingness to sacrifice their bodies.
"I'll watch him run routes, and I'll think, He fits into this scheme," Cooley says of Clark. "When I see Dallas do things, I think I can do those things too."
Clark has similar praise for his Redskins counterpart. "Sure-handed, tough and a hard worker," Clark says. "You can tell he's been that way every day he's played football. Just a grinder. He's a special one."
Their chat over, Clark and Cooley made plans to speak after the game, a 27--24 Colts' victory that highlighted the beauty, diversity and peril of their position. Cooley caught five passes for 37 yards and delivered the game's most punishing block, sending Colts defensive back Justin Tryon hurtling backward on a collision in the third quarter. Clark grabbed six passes for 52 yards—gutting the middle of the Redskins' defense—and repeatedly pulled across the line of scrimmage to help out on running plays.
The game over, an achy Clark walked a narrow corridor toward the Redskins' locker room to wish Cooley well, only to learn that he'd suffered a concussion. "I was looking for him," Clark said. "It's fun to tell [opposing tight ends] you admire them and how much you love to watch them play."
At perhaps no time in the history of the NFL has the tight end position been so flush with skilled big men who can affect a game from so many spots on the field. While tight ends still often line up next to tackles, today's offensive schemes also find them in the slot, split wide and even in the backfield. Where once they were grunts along the line of scrimmage, today's tight ends are as likely to be sent in motion as they are to be nose to nose with a pass rusher, and they can catch balls out of the air as deftly as any wide receiver.
"When you talk about those guys, the first word that comes to mind is versatility," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning says. "For us, Dallas pass-protects like a right tackle, and he's also a threat to go down the middle of the field. You've seen Dallas in the backfield for us, or lining up at wide receiver, and [Antonio] Gates and Cooley do that too. What those guys have in common is that they can really make you pay for a mistake. You have to find the guy that can do that, where if [the defender] slips just a little bit, if he bites on a fake just a little bit, it's not just going to cost [the defense] a 10-yard completion, it might cost [it] an 80-yard touchdown."
And more such versatile weapons are coming on-line every season. A tight end has been selected in the first round of the NFL draft every year since 2000. The rebuilding Lions spent a precious first-round pick last year on Oklahoma State's 6'5", 265-pound Brandon Pettigrew, who has emerged as a valuable target in Detroit, leading the team with 33 catches for 336 yards this season. The Patriots plucked two tight ends in their first six selections last April, Arizona's Rob Gronkowski in the second round and Florida's Aaron Hernandez in the fourth, and they've combined for 29 catches.
Says Ozzie Newsome, the Hall of Fame Browns tight end and now the Ravens' general manager, "This last draft was as good a group of tight ends as I've seen in the last decade. The advent of the spread offense, both on our level and in college, has been beneficial to the tight end because guys in college get more opportunities to run routes and catch balls. You can get a proper evaluation without having to project a lot. With that 6'3", 6'5", 240-, 250-pound guy, people are finding out that if you have ability they can use you. The tight end is not a guy that has a hand in the dirt for 70 plays anymore."