Dougherty: How TE tandem weaponizes Packers' offense
If you’ve followed the Green Bay Packers for a couple of decades or more, then Ted Thompson’s signings of tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks in early March might have brought to mind 1996.
That was the lone full season that Keith Jackson and Mark Chmura played together in Green Bay. It ended with a Super Bowl title, and the Jackson-Chmura tandem was a big part of that season.
The parallel to today isn’t exact. While Jackson and Bennett are comparable talents, Chmura was a better and more accomplished player than Kendricks. So the Jackson-Chmura duo was better.
Still, all signs suggest the Bennett-Kendricks tandem could be a similarly important package in coach Mike McCarthy’s offense. In an era when blocking skills at tight end are in decline, the two offer a well-rounded skill set that should be hard to defend.
“When you play the Packers you’re defending (Aaron) Rodgers,” said a defensive coach from an NFC team. “You don’t care who the rest of the gang is, but Rodgers throwing it, that’s how you’re going to get beat.
“When you have a two-tight-end scenario, the run-pass becomes a bigger problem for the defense. Looks to me like (McCarthy) is trying to be more balanced from run-pass situation. A two-tight-end does that, it affords you a lot of different options, especially when you have two tight ends that can actually run and block.”
RELATED: Packers' offense poised to go to next level
RELATED: McCarthy making big plans for Bennett
RELATED: Complete coverage of NFL owners meetings
Just how big the two-tight-end set becomes in McCarthy’s offense depends on how much Kendricks benefits from a new team and quarterback after the Rams cut him in a cost-saving move in March that wiped his $4.25 million pay off their books in ‘17. He had two years left on a four-year, $18.5 million deal and last season had a career-high 50 catches. We’ll get to him a little later.
But the signings surely appear to have excited Rodgers. I’m usually wary of optimistic offseason talk, but Rodgers came across as genuine on a recent podcast with Evan Daniels of Fox Sports.
“We probably need a couple more pieces on defense before the season starts,” Rodgers said, “but we’re going to be really tough to stop on offense.”
Thinking back to ’96, I can see why he’d say that.
Twenty years later, with passing stats inflated by continual rules changes favoring the passing game, Jackson’s and Chmura’s numbers look small. Jackson caught only 40 passes (though 10 were for touchdowns), which ranked second on the team and No. 11 among tight ends in the NFL. Chmura had only 28 receptions in 13 games, so they combined for just 68.
But that’s not the telltale of what they meant to the offense. The Packers led the NFL in scoring in ’96, the only time in Brett Favre’s 16 seasons in Green Bay they finished higher than third. That’s the ultimate measure, especially for a team that lost its best receiver, Robert Brooks, to a season-ending knee injury in the seventh game.
Snaps stats aren’t available from ’96, so I can’t say how often Jackson and Chmura played together. But I remember well enough to say Mike Holmgren used two tight ends more than he had in his previous four seasons as coach.
And I’m betting McCarthy will have Bennett and Kendricks playing together even more. Multiple-tight-end sets are more common in today’s NFL, and McCarthy has been a proponent even with far lesser talent than he’ll have this year.
In fact, McCarthy’s take on tight ends at the NFL’s owners meetings last week stood out more than anything he’s said on any subject all offseason. In his mind, tight end is knocking on the door of primary positions (quarterback, left tackle, cornerback and outside pass rusher).
“I really think tight end is pushing the envelope on that just with today’s game, with the rules changes that have occurred here in the last five, six, seven, eight years,” McCarthy said. “The middle of the field is open. That’s a lot tougher area to defend with bigger athletic men at the tight end position.”
That more than anything gives an idea of what he has in mind for 2017.
Bennett was the key signing and is as complete a tight end as there is in the game. He’s a step up from the man he replaced, Jared Cook, because he’s a comparable receiving threat and a far superior blocker.
But it was the signing of another player (Kendricks) at the same position the next day that was the stunner by a general manager who so rarely signs other teams’ players. The move has McCarthy, not Thompson, written all over it. And how much McCarthy gets out of two-tight-end sets now depends on whether Kendricks is much of an upgrade over Richard Rodgers, the Packers’ No. 2 tight end last year.
This past week I talked to a scout and assistant coach who have worked in the Rams’ NFC West division for years, so they know Kendricks and Cook well (Cook played for the Rams before signing with the Packers last season).
The assistant coach said Kendricks is prone to the occasional blown assignment.
“Physically (Kendricks) is good, he’s not great,” the defensive coach said. “He’s not going to overwhelm you with his talent. He’s not going to underwhelm you. He’s just a good player. He’s not nearly as talented as Cook. But Lance is a little more rounded, he’s a better blocker. Not as good a route runner as Cook is, not going to stretch the defense. But you like having him. He’s not a bad player by any stretch.”
The scout immediately brought up Kendricks' drops. Remember Cook’s reputation for too many drops when the Packers signed him? Kendricks’ is worse. For what it’s worth, Cook caught the ball well in his 13 games (playoffs included) with the Packers: five drops in 81 targets, according to PackersNews.com’s Bob McGinn.
“As soon as you like Lance, he’s going to make one or two good catches, then he’s going to break your heart,” the scout said. “That’s really been the story of his career even though he’s flashed some production overall.
“He’s not a bad pick for what they’re trying to do. He’s not a starting, mainstream tight end. But he can block and he can catch. It’s just that his inconsistency in hands, securing the ball before you run, just the little oops and drops at the wrong time — red zone, third-down conversion.”
Still, the Packers saw enough they liked to sign him only one day after Bennett. Kendricks’ two-year deal is for $4 million and included a $1.2 million bonus.
Though the game has evolved the last 20 years, the general idea of a two-tight-end set, if your tight ends are good enough, is the same as it was in ’96: creating matchup problems.
Because Bennett is a good blocker and Kendricks a little better than average, that’s a good run matchup against nickel defensive personnel (two linebackers and five defensive backs).
And if the run works, that opens the play-action passing game if both tight ends are real receiving threats.
“The problem with Bennett is that with nine out of 10 (slot cornerbacks) in the league, he’s so much bigger than them he creates a size problem,” the defensive coach said. “You’ll see the (slot corner) on Kendricks rather than on Bennett. Bennett creates the matchup problem just in that he moves so well and he’s so big.”
This was Thompson’s big move of the early offseason. He has given McCarthy more to work with at tight end than the coach ever has had. The guess here is that Aaron Rodgers is right.