As we head into football’s biggest weekend of the year, much of the pre-Super Bowl hype has focused on the match-up of Denver’s three great wide receivers (DeMaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Wes Welker) against the Seahawks’ four superb defensive backs (safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, cornerback Byron Maxwell and, most notably, the outspoken Richard Sherman).
These candidates are all worthy veteran players, averaging more than four and a half NFL seasons each. But keep your eye on All-Pro tight end Julius Thomas, the guy who will line up alongside either side of Denver’s offensive tackles—and a dark horse candidate for this year’s Super Bowl MVP. Thomas has become Peyton Manning’s go-to guy in just his first full NFL season, catching 79 passes and scoring 12 touchdowns, making him potentially the best ever at what might be pro football’s most demanding position.
With the ball in his hands, Thomas runs like what Seattle coach Pete Carroll admiringly calls “a sidewinder missile.” In perhaps the biggest play of the season, on January 12 against the Chargers in the AFC divisional round, the Broncos were struggling to protect a seven-point lead (24-17) with 3:53 left in the game. From their own 20-yard line, Manning was in a dangerous situation, third-and-17. He threw under the coverage to Thomas, who broke two tackles for a 20-yard gain and a key first down. Three plays later, on third-and-six from the Denver 45, Thomas slid off the line to grab a quick seven-yard pass, giving the Broncos another critical first down. A minute later the gun sounded, and the Broncos left the field to pack for New Jersey.
It’s not easy finding an athlete who can do all the things a tight end is supposed to do. The legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh once told me that tight ends “are freaks of nature. You see a young kid with a great arm you say, ‘That kid’s a future quarterback.’ You see a boy who hits really hard, you think ‘That’s a future linebacker.’" But tight ends, he told me, "are a strange hybrid. They have to be big and strong enough to block, have exceptional speed, and the hands to catch a pass over the middle.”
So great tight ends are rare. Since 1960, when the position of tight end came into being, the Pro Football Hall of Fame has inducted only eight, as compared to 22 wide receivers. Until the mid-1950s, most college and pro teams put all their receivers in close as part of the offensive line. In 1957, Army receiver Bill Carpenter became famous as “The Lonesome End” because he was flanked out wide, split away from the line—hence the term “split end.” Over a couple of seasons the guys who came in close to the line became “tight ends.”
The Green Bay Packers’ Ron Kramer may not have been the game’s first tight end, but he was the first player listed on a roster at that position. Kramer joined the Packers in 1957. He was a tad slow to be an NFL receiver, and at 6'3" and 235, he was smallish for an offensive lineman. In 1961 Packers coach Vince Lombardi tried lining up Kramer as a sixth offensive lineman, but often called his number as a receiver. Kramer averaged a sensational 16 yards per catch and was quarterback Bart Starr’s primary target in clutch situations, and over the next few seasons, smart coaches learned the advantage of a guy with the strength to block and hands to catch.
The right tight ends, though, have been few in number. In the 1960s, the Chicago Bears Mike Ditka and the Baltimore Colts John Mackey were followed by the St. Louis Cardinals Jackie Smith, Charlie Sanders of the Detroit Lions, the Oakland Raiders Dave Casper, Ozzie Newsome of the Cleveland Browns, the San Diego Chargers Kellen Winslow and the Denver Broncos Shannon Sharpe. All earned plaques in Canton. Tony Gonzalez, who finished out his career this past season after 17 years with the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons, Antonio Gates, who played his 11th season for the Chargers this year, and the San Francisco 49ers’ two-time Pro-Bowler Vernon Davis are likely today’s future HOFers.
Thomas is 6’5” and 251 pounds with a 35 ½-inch vertical leap—and was once a 4.64 runner in the 40-yard dash. And as for his hands, he set school records during his three years on the Portland State basketball team. He may be faster and a better athlete than all the tight ends before him.
Deciding who covers Thomas, then, will be one of the most important game decisions Pete Carroll will make. Assuming that Seattle will, on occasion, double cover one or more of the Broncos' wideouts on third-and-long situations, who will be left to guard against Julius Thomas? Presumably the Seahawks will bring in an extra defensive back or two to bolster their coverage downfield, but it’s virtually impossible to double cover a tight end because you don’t know if he’s going to stay on the line and block or peel off and go downfield for a pass.
The likely candidate to draw Thomas is Kam Chancellor, who, at 230 pounds is by far Seattle’s biggest defensive back. But he’s still two inches shorter and almost 20 pounds lighter than Thomas, who most observers think is faster than Chancellor. Carroll may choose to sic one of his linebackers on Thomas, a player who could at least match Julius’s size and strength. The problem is that none of them has the speed to keep up with him.
If Thomas makes a big play to win the championship this Sunday, Carroll—in an amusingly indirect kind of way—has only himself to blame. Julius’s father Greg played at the University of the Pacific for then-offensive coordinator Carroll until torn knee ligaments ended his football aspirations. So instead of playing football, Greg Thomas settled down, got his degree in education, got married and had a family. This week Greg has had a great deal of fun this season telling anyone who will listen that if it weren’t for Carroll, Julius “wouldn’t have been born.”
So this Sunday night when Denver has the ball and it’s, say, third-and-six, look for Julius Thomas. Because that’s what Carroll, Peyton Manning, and the Seattle Seahawks secondary will be doing.