That's ancient history, though.
Through five games, NFL tight ends have caught 765 passes for 8,992 yards and 76 touchdowns. That's record production. Incredibly — but not surprisingly — the four biggest seasons have come in the last four seasons.
By receptions, this season tops 2012 (748), 2010 (725) and 2011 (699). By yards, this season tops 2011 (8,435), 2010 (8,124) and 2012 (8,117). By touchdowns, this season tops 2011 (67), 2012 (67) and 2010 (55).
"I've never seen this many tight ends this good at one particular time," CBS analyst Shannon Sharpe, one of eight tight ends enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said in a league press release. "We've never seen the position this dominant. This is the golden age of tight ends."
Green Bay's Jermichael Finley has caught 17 passes for 153 yards and two touchdowns while essentially playing in just three games due to a concussion sustained early in the Cincinnati game and the Week 4 bye. Among league tight ends, he's tied for 15th in receptions, is 23rd in yards and is tied for 10th in touchdowns.
"It creates matchup problems for defenses," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said of the challenge posed by today's fleet of big, athletic tight ends. "It's hard for a linebacker to stay with him because they may not be as fast, and it's hard for a safety to stay with him because he may not be as big. Jermichael's a combination — he has outstanding size, he has very good speed for his size and he's strong. Even if he's well-covered, he still has a chance to catch the football."
While an athletic tight end can stress a defense by running straight up the field to occupy the safeties, almost all of Finley's work has been done on short passes. Finley is 0-for-2 on passes thrown to him at least 20 yards downfield. In fact, Finley's only catch of a pass thrown at least 10 yards downfield was a 3-yard touchdown against Washington.
"No, it's just the way it's played out," Clements said when asked if teams are taking away the deep ball to Finley. "There have been times when we've thrown it to him down the field. He's gotten more shorter passes this year, and he's turned some of those shorter passes into big gains. Any way we can get him the ball, we're looking to do it."
According to ProFootballFocus.com, Finley is averaging 8.2 yards after the catch per reception this season. That's tops in the league among tight ends with more than seven receptions.
"I think that Jermichael does a great job with his balance," tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said recently. "He does a great job with being physical and having the mentality that one guy will not bring him down. What gets him there, I think it's just reps and I think it's just confidence in yourself. If you're out there having fun and you're not thinking about things too much, then you're probably going to have a good chance of being successful."
Before the Cincinnati game, Finley talked about his success on short passes. It was an interesting comment in light of the concussion he sustained trying to haul in a pass deep down the middle.
"I'm getting 25 on a drag route, so why not nickel and dime them instead going down the seam and getting my head knocked off," Finley said. "I get to see the hits coming. I'll take anything they throw at me. If they want to throw me a seam 50 yards downfield, I'll take that. If they want to throw me a drag route, I'll convert that into a 25-yard run."
Among tight ends in Packers history, Finley ranks third in receptions (215) and second in yards (2,638), having passed Ron Kramer (2,594) against Washington in Week 2. He owns three of the top five seasons in terms of receptions, including a record 61 last year, and three of the top seven in yards.
"The importance of the tight end position has increased with the new emphasis on the passing game," NFL Network analyst and former NFL head coach Steve Mariucci said in the release. "Teams are throwing the ball more often.
"The way to create mismatches with defenses is to have versatile tight ends. That's why we're seeing a lot of basketball player tight ends – Tony Gonzalez, Jimmy Graham and Antonio Gates. You can play them in line and run some regular offense, and also stand them up and split them out in the slot or wide out and play them in a spread out type offense. Now you pose a problem to defenses and how do we match? Do we substitute nickel? Do we play base defense? It's a problem. Teams are utilizing two tight ends very well and it's hard to substitute with them. You don't know what you're going to get; either bunched up run plays or spread them out wide pass plays."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.