FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Hall of Fame tight end Charlie Sanders thought for years that Bill Belichick was just being polite. Now, as he watches the combination of New England Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, he understands what Belichick appreciated.
"Every time I see Bill, I say, 'Thank you for all you did for me,' " said the 65-year-old Sanders, who was coached for two seasons by Belichick at the end of his career with the Detroit Lions in the 1970s. "Bill always says back to me, 'No, thank you and David [Hill] for all you did. Without you guys, none of this would have happened.' "
Hill was another former Lions tight end, a second-round pick in 1976 selected to eventually replace Sanders. But in 1976, Belichick and the coaching staff came up with a unique concept in an effort to help the talent-starved Lions, who finished 6-8 that season.
On a lot of passing plays, Sanders and Hill were both on the field. The pair combined for 10 of the Lions' 20 touchdown receptions that season. The only thing that stopped the formation from lasting longer was Sanders retired after the 1977 season.
"Yeah, that was really the first – I mean, honestly there wasn't a lot of two tight ends in the mid-70s, there really wasn't," Belichick said. "There was one tight end in the game and occasionally teams used two tight ends in short yardage, but that's kind of where the two tight ends and one [running] back [started]. And then [coach Don] Coryell and San Diego and so forth, it became a little more prevalent. But when we had Charlie Sanders and David Hill at Detroit, those two guys were pretty good."
As it turns out, they were innovators.
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"At the time, I never really thought about it because we were just trying to get the best players on the field," Sanders said. "Now, when I watch the Patriots, I see what Bill was trying to get to. Maybe he didn't have it all figured out back then, but you see where the idea was going. If you can find more ways to get a 260-pound man the ball [in the secondary], there's a lot of damage you can do."
Thirty-five years after Belichick and the Lions paired Sanders and Hill, the Patriots have taken that concept to its most extreme level of success by pairing record-setting Gronkowski with versatile tight end/running back/wide receiver Hernandez. Gronkowski caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. The yards and TDs were league records for a tight end. As for Hernandez, his 79 receptions for 910 yards and seven scores ranked among the top six tight ends in each category.
Rather than pairing a terrific receiving tight end like Gronkowski with a heavy run blocker in a power formation, Belichick found a versatile athlete in Hernandez who can block enough, run enough and catch enough to cause problems for defenses.
"You could see [in 2010] what they were trying to do with that personnel," said Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith, who has referred to Gronkowski and Hernandez as the equivalent of "queens on the chessboard."
The Patriots are putting big points on the scoreboard with the combination of a hurry-up offense and the talents of tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
"You move those guys around according to how the defense is trying to defend you. If you want to play standard personnel on defense, they flex one or both of those guys out and force you to cover them with linebackers. If you put extra defensive backs in, they line up in double-[tight end] and maul you. You never have the right personnel on the field."
On top of that, New England's hurry-up attack, which paved the way to 42 points in the first three quarters Saturday against the Denver Broncos, makes it nearly impossible for the defense to substitute personnel.
"It's not tricky, it's just tough because you have to be on top of everything you do with them," New York Giants safety Antrel Rolle said earlier this season after the Giants beat New England 24-20. Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 12 catches, 136 yards and two touchdowns. "We all get the idea of the formations. That's not new. It's just that they can do it anytime without having to sub. … Other teams, when they change personnel between plays, they're giving you some idea about what they're going to do."
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The Patriots' duo made the Broncos look clueless, combining for 14 catches, 200 yards and four touchdowns. In addition, Hernandez rushed a career-high five times for 61 yards, including a 43-yard run that set up the team's first score. That's as many carries as Hernandez had during the entire regular season.
"I always wanted to be a running back," Hernandez said with a devilish grin.
The 6-foot-1, 245-pound Hernandez got off to a faster start than Gronkowski last year, their rookie seasons. Hernandez caught 34 passes for 436 yards and two touchdowns in the first eight games in 2010 compared to 14 for 148 and three scores for Gronkowski. Over the second half, Gronkowski took off in part because quarterback Tom Brady made a point of teaching Hernandez to play within the confines of the system, a team source said.
[ Photo gallery: Patriots' dynamic duo at tight end ]
The 6-6, 265-pound Gronkowski is more the prototype tight end, having both the size and willingness to block at the line, and the speed and hands to be a significant threat as a receiver.
"He's like having a third offensive tackle because of his blocking ability, but then you put him out there as a receiver and you see what he can do," said Patriots guard Brian Waters, who played nine years in Kansas City with Tony Gonzalez. Waters calls Gonzalez the "best ever," but recognizes the unique situation Gronkowski and Hernandez present.
Or as Sanders said: "It makes all the sense in the world. You get that big man matched up against your smallest defenders and that's a big advantage."
Unlike Detroit in the '70s, the Patriots should be able to do this for many years after putting these two together so early in their careers.
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