When Gavin Escobar became a Dallas Cowboys, my first reaction (okay, fine, my first reaction after 'Who?') was one of excitement for the future of our offense. No, I won't say that Escobar is the next Witten (or Gonzalez/Gates, for that matter), though I like his potential. What I really aim to say is that Escobar adds a third threat to the tight end corps that has been missing for quite some time.
The thing that I love most about tight ends, especially having a quarterback as in-control at the line of scrimmage as Romo, is the fact that no one can tell what to expect based on a tight end's presence on the field.
It's a little-tracked battle on Sundays during football season, but it's one worth paying attention to: position groupings. I'll try to back up a bit and put this all into context.
Most of us have seen a penalty called at least once entitled "Twelve Men in the Huddle." At first, it may seem like an arbitrary penalty - who cares if the quarterback has an extra body to explain the play to before said player leaves the huddle? At least, that's how I thought until I started paying attention to personnel groupings.
When the offense forms the huddle, the defense becomes aware of the personnel grouping ("12" for example). Based on the personnel grouping, the defensive coordinator will know historically what that team has done with that group on the field, from as basic as run/pass ratio to as specific as which route combination they run from it. Based on this information, the defensive coordinator calls for what he believes to be an advantageous personnel grouping of his own. This is why 12 men in the huddle is a penalty - it prevents the defense from having time to adjust while the offense huddles.
We know the offense must have 5 eligible receivers on any given play. Who they are is what is significant to the defense. When the defense sees an offensive huddle containing 5 wide receivers, they know to expect a passing play. It's a rather simple conclusion to draw, and the defensive coordinator will likely send out 5 corners to match up. Correlating the number of corners to the number of receivers is a fairly standard practice, especially on passing downs. But what do you do to counter backs and tight ends?
A 5WR set is 00 personnel. The first 0 indicates 0 running backs, and the second 0 indicates 0 tight ends. I've honestly never heard of a 50 or 05 set, or even a 4x or x4 set, so we can leave out those extremes for now. As for reasonable formations, though, the 23 isn't all that rare. That's your standard goal line set. The defense will be expecting run or short-range play action based on the personnel and will likely send out a run-focused defensive group.
A second running back, typically a fullback, will significantly increase the expectation of a running play, especially if that fullback is not very versatile as a receiver (Vickers, actually, is a passable receiver). How do you combat the running game, as a defensive coach? Typically, the first thing you do is avoid calling a zone coverage that requires stepping backward at the snap; passivity loses in the running game. The next thing is to ensure lane integrity. Make sure every hole is accounted for. Finally, if the running game has been working for the other team, you may consider a run blitz. A run blitz, rather than focus on getting to the quarterback (which is more often done with overload blitzing), simply sends additional players to lanes that are already covered, usually in a more balanced manner than a pass-rush blitz. An example might be sending both OLBs inside the DEs. Essentially, the run blitz takes guys out of coverage, but sometimes it simply must be done.
What if that 23 formation were, instead, a 20 formation? A fullback, halfback, and three receivers? I'd consider it likely to be an inside run or a passing play. This illustrates that the three tight ends, when compared to the three receivers, greatly differ in the plays that they allow to be run. Just one paragraph ago, we also established that a strong indication of the run, if the run has been successful, can effectively remove pass defenders from coverage. This should be the goal for any passing offense (conversely, and this can be done with the 20 formation I just discussed, a team like the Titans or Vikings might want to 'bluff' pass in order to force zone coverage and gain an advantage in the running game).
If the goal is to convince the other team to respect the run when you pass, or respect the pass when you run, the solution is simply to be better than the opponent in both the running and passing game. There isn't an easier concept in all of football. This, however, is the age of parity. It's uncommon to be better than the opponent in both the running and passing game, especially if you have any investments on the defensive side of the ball. In that situation, it becomes desirable to deceive your opponent into respecting the run or the pass, specifically during plays in which you're doing the opposite. This is where the tight ends really come into play.
Using the classic '23' goal line formation, again, one might reconsider the implications when going against a team like, for example, the Dallas Cowboys who now, along with the best tight end in the game also have one of the fastest and, apparently, the second-best rookie at the position for a formidable three-pronged attack. With Witten, Hanna, and Escobar in the Huddle with Murray and Vickers, would you be so certain that the play is a run? Or a standard passing play? Or even a play-action route going 30 yards downfield to Hanna? You simply can't know. When a tight end takes the field in today's game, the opponent must respect his ability as a receiver and as a blocker.
So when you see, for example, a '13' set, with one receiver, one back, and three tight ends, you can't be sure if you should treat it like 4 receivers and a back (definite pass) or 4 backs and a receiver (power run), or something in between. You can, as a defensive coordinator, play balanced defense (and likely lose most plays), or elect to determine whether the offense is running or passing. In the latter case, if the offense forces you to commit to the wrong defense, you'll likely be burned for big plays. Guess correctly three times (one in eight chance, going by coin flips), and you can get off the field. The more dynamic the tight ends are, as blockers and as receivers, the more pressure is put on the defensive coordinator to make a decision between run and pass defense.
The Cowboys have been setting themselves up to force these types of choices. They also carry an additional advantage in the form of one Tony Romo. Romo calls two plays in the huddle, most often one pass and the other run, and then goes to the line to read the defense. If the defense is set up to stop the run, Romo will go to the pass, and the other way around. With the dynamic skillsets of our tight ends, these 'kill' calls may come with formation changes, forcing the defense into disarray as Romo creates mismatches for the rest of the team to exploit: a corner on Escobar, a safety on Witten, or a linebacker on Hanna. I like all of those matchups. I also like Murray running hard at a zone defense that's on its heels to defend our three-way tight end threat.
I'm excited to see what our offense can do with multiple tight ends in the fold. The 12 formation seems to be the Cowboy Way of the future, and I can't wait for the league to take notice.
What do you want to see from the Cowboys' tight ends this year? What are your expectations?