In the NFL, coaches spend the offseason poring over video.
Video of their team, the teams on their schedule and any team doing cutting-edge things that might be worth stealing.
With that in mind, it’s safe to say video of the New England Patriots offense went viral in NFL circles during the offseason. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined for 169 catches, 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns for a team that scored 57 offensive touchdowns, just six behind the league-leading 63 tallied by a Green Bay Packers offense that was considered next to unstoppable.
“They just utilized their personnel well,” Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “They’d get them in good matchups and they made plays. There’s really no magic. You can’t reinvent the wheel.”
No, but you can replicate it. And that’s something Green Bay might have the wherewithal to do this season, should the Packers choose to go in that direction.
People are asking how Green Bay can improve upon an offense that carried it to a 15-1 record — and the answer might lie not in the running game, as some theorize, but in the deep and talented group of tight ends. With the rapid emergence of second-year man D.J. Williams during training camp, the Packers have two tight ends who run well enough to stretch the field vertically and who conceivably could wreak Patriots-style havoc on opposing defenses.
It’s way too early to say Jermichael Finley and Williams will be the Packers’ version of Gronkowski and Hernandez, but there are some valid comparisons, especially if Williams continues to play as well as he did during the first week of camp.
Finley, like Gronkowski, is a tall, fast, athletic receiver who creates matchup nightmares for opponents. Williams, like Hernandez, is a shorter, even faster receiver with good hands and versatility.
Green Bay’s wide receivers are too talented for any tight ends to put up the numbers Gronkowski and Hernandez did last year, but having two who can get deep and two others — Tom Crabtree and Ryan Taylor — with solid pass-catching ability might induce coach Mike McCarthy to experiment with more multiple tight end sets. That would help the Packers put pressure on the middle of the field and dictate to defenses.
“I’ve always believed in schematically developing a passing game (that) the quickest way to the end zone is through the middle of the field and you can never have enough big-body types that can be multiple (threats) as far as the short, intermediate and vertical routes,” McCarthy said. “D.J. is doing a much better job of that.”
As someone who ran the 40-yard dash in the high 4.5s coming out of Arkansas, Williams is the fastest of the Packers tight ends. Until he was slowed by a back injury, he made catch after catch during camp.
“He’s made some plays,” wide receiver Jordy Nelson said. “Especially up the seams on the deep balls down the middle of field. He’s done a great job there.”
First-year tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot cautioned that his group has to do things the right way all the time and that it has a long way to go in that regard.
“But once we get there,” he said, “it’ll be nice to say that we have guys that can push the middle and can stretch the defense downfield.”
Finley caught 55 passes for 767 yards and eight touchdowns last season, excellent numbers had they not been marred by 13 drops. The rest of the Packers tight ends caught only 12 passes for 91 yards and two touchdowns.
Williams saw brief action after Andrew Quarless was injured in December and caught two passes for 13 yards. Quarless isn’t expected back until later in the season, which has opened the door for Williams.
As for the Patriots, Gronkowski has good but not great speed, running in the mid-4.6s coming out of college. Still, he was first among NFL tight ends in receiving yards (1,327), touchdowns (17) and catches of 20 or more yards (22) and second in receptions (90). Hernandez was fourth in yards (910) and touchdowns (7), fifth in receptions (79) and ninth in catches of 20 or more yards (12).
Remember, too, they did that despite playing alongside wide receiver Wes Welker, whose 122 catches led the NFL.
“That’s kind of where the game is going,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “Look at the number of tight ends on peoples’ rosters. What’d we have last year, five? It’s a matchup game. They’re going to evaluate how you’re matching up on those tight ends and if it’s in their favor, they’re going to get a lot of balls.”
If Williams continues to progress, he could team with Finley to give the Packers a pair of tight ends who, much like the Patriots duo, can create matchup problems because of their ability to get deep.
“I was talking to him (about that) the other day,” Finley said, “and I told him that would be awesome if he can step it up.”
Who knows? It could even go viral.