By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) It’s hard to ignore Bill Belichick’s credentials when it comes to putting together an NFL offense. For a guy who made his bones in the NFL as a defensive genius with the New York Giants under Bill Parcells, he has a command of modern offense that is second to none.
Of the four teams playing Sunday, the Patriots have the most explosive offensive team. Having Tom Brady calling signals for you is a big advantage, but what makes the team so difficult to defend is the presence of not one, but two game-breaking tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Gronkowski has dominated from start to finish this season, putting statistics on the board by a tight end that were not even considered possible five years ago. Gronkowski caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns during the regular season and added another three touchdown catches in the divisional playoff domination of the Broncos. Hernandez, who may be a tad quicker than Gronkowski, caught 79 passes for 910 yards and seven touchdowns this year. Belichick also decided to let Hernandez line up in the backfield against the Broncos and he ran for a team-high 61 yards against Denver, a strategy that flummoxed Denver head coach John Fox and further ensured the Broncos’ demise.
Belichick knows that tight end is an important position. So does Jim Harbaugh, who saw his tight end, Vernon Davis, catch the game-winning touchdown pass against the Saints in what may have been the best postseason game since the Steelers beat the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. Harbaugh’s brother John has also gotten message in Baltimore. He has two tight ends in Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta who combined for 94 catches for 933 yards and eight touchdowns this season.
Someone needs to get the news of the importance of the tight end to the Bears. As they watched their season slip-slide away after Jay Cutler injured his thumb, there was no legitimate tight end option for backup quarterback Caleb Hanie. Throwing to a wide open huge target like Gronkowski or Davis would have made life much easier for a quarterback who demonstrated that he did not understand the concept of accuracy. With a big tight end who can catch anything in the same area code, accuracy is not as big an issue.
Interestingly, the two men most responsible for the Bears void at this position have vanished. General manager Jerry Angelo was fired two weeks ago and offensive coordinator Mike Martz was given his walking papers before he ”retired” Monday. He called it a career because nobody else in the NFL is foolish enough to bring him on board. Martz wanted his tight end to be a blocker and a blocker only and he basically ran Greg Olsen off the team with his philosophy.
Martz’s dismissal may be the best thing that has happened to the Bears. He’s been labeled a genius for more than a decade, but that title was never deserved. He was fairly creative as Dick Vermeil’s offensive coordinator with the St. Louis Rams when they won Super Bowl XXXIV over the Titans following the 1999 season, but he also stole credit from other coaches on the staff who may have been at least as deserving.
You may remember that the Rams had an explosive offense with Kurt Warner behind center and a crew of outstanding receivers that included Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim. As the Rams reeled off win after win, you couldn’t read a story about the team that didn’t include a description of Martz as a genius. It was easy for him to promote himself in that manner.
It wasn’t Martz alone who built the offense. Wide receiver coach Al Saunders honed the route-running skills of Holt and Hakim and worked with Bruce on his ability to make big plays after the catch. Saunders was far too modest to claim responsibility for the development of the Rams offense, but Bruce, Holt and Hakim stuck up for their receivers coach and so did Warner.
The Bears have to fill Angelo’s spot and have promoted Mike Tice to fill the offensive coordinator position. Tice is an old-school, ground-and-pound offensive grunt, but he has eyes and sees the importance of tight end around the league. If the new general manager has been watching what’s been going on around the rest of the league, the Bears will make the tight end position a huge priority.
If not, another playoff-free season may be at hand in 2012.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.