August 4, 2021

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Quick Reads Decade in Review: TE Games

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Welcome back to the Quick Reads Decade in Review! Longtime Football Outsiders readers will be familiar with Quick Reads, our regular in-season feature that runs down the best (and, just as fun, the worst!) passers, runners, and receivers of every week. That’s 210 columns since 2010 covering each week’s results, but aside from the occasional year in review piece, we rarely look at things in the big picture. That changes today!

Today we’re going to look at the most remarkable tight ends of the 2010s (20-teens?) with the best and worst games of the past 10 years. Later we’ll examine the best and worst players in total value.

Prior pieces in this series:

Best Games

Tallying the best and worst games for tight ends is complicated, because in our weekly Quick Reads feature, we lump them in with wide receivers. As such, our list of notable games for tight ends is much shorter than it is for other positions. We found 98 “good games” in the decade for quarterbacks, 72 for running backs, and 95 for wide receivers, but only 31 for tight ends. The same is true at the other end of the spectrum: we found 70 “bad games” in the decade for quarterbacks, 56 for running backs, and 64 for wide receivers, but only 25 for tight ends. With such a tiny sample, we were worried that no individuals would stand out from the pack. We were very, very wrong.

Rob Gronkowski had seven of those 31 good tight end games (defined as those with at least 60 DYAR). Nobody else had more than Travis Kelce, who had three. In fact, seven games is the career record for tight ends, one more than the six of Tony Gonzalez. If you’re wondering which games those seven were, well, you’ll find out shortly, because all seven were ranked 19th or higher.

That last number is mind-blowing. We had to count 36 good games for quarterbacks, nearly twice as many as we did for tight ends, before anyone got to seven. (That one was Gronkowski’s quarterback, Tom Brady.) Julio Jones had a league-high seven good games for wide receivers in the decade, but the seventh of those games ranked 67th. And that list of 72 good games for running backs? Arian Foster led the way with a half-dozen — we never even got to seven. Gronkowski’s dominance here is unparalleled.

We could say more about Gronkowski, but we need to save some superlatives for when we talk about tight end totals later this week. For now we’ll just get into the list of the best tight end games of the decade. And no, Gronk does not finish first. The best game of the past 10 years took place in the last few weeks of the last NFL season.

The following table shows the 20 best tight end games of the 2010s. We’re including the original comments that ran in Quick Reads at the time, written by myself or by my predecessor Bill Barnwell, along with notes with current updates or observations where relevant. (Remember that opponent adjustments will have changed since some of these games were covered at midseason.) Also, since tight end games were lumped in with wide receiver games, many of them were not originally listed in Quick Reads and never had comments written for them in the first place, so I’ve added comments for them here. We’ve also added the pass defense DVOA of each opponent so you can see which games came against stout units, and which were dominant performances against bad teams. Playoff games are highlighted in blue.

A final observation: many of these games, both good and bad, took place in 2011. Of the 40 games listed in these two tables, nine were played in that season, including three from the four games in the divisional round of the playoffs. That was the year Gronkowski led the league with 17 touchdown catches and blew up the tight end record book with 461 DYAR, nearly double the second-best tight end that year (Jimmy Graham, 238) and almost 100 more than the next-best season we have ever measured (Gonzalez had 362 DYAR in 2000). Marcedes Lewis also set a record for tight ends that year with -161 DYAR (that’ll happen when you catch less than 50% of your targets and fail to score a single touchdown), the worst tight end season we have ever measured. With such an abnormally wide range for tight ends that year, there was a lot more room than usual for extreme outliers in a given week.

Worst Games

As mentioned earlier, we found 25 bad games for tight ends, defined as those with -40 DYAR or less. No, there is no “anti-Gronk” who dominated that list; Jared Cook had three, Jimmy Graham had two, and nobody else had more than one. Two of Cook’s games top the list of bad outings and, well, the coincidences between them are kind of amazing.

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