The Colts took Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen in the second and third rounds of the 2012 draft, reviving what had long been an Indianapolis staple: the two tight end offense.
I thought it would be useful to look at a brief history of two tight ends in Indy, to see when it took hold and where it has gone in recent years.
In the pre-Peyton days, the Colts had two tight ends each pick up more than 100 yards in a season just four times. The most prolific duo was Kerry Cash and Charles Arbuckle in 1992, accounting for roughly 21% of the total passing offense and combining for 673 yards, the bulk of that by Cash. The first year Dilger and Pollard both had 100 yards receiving in the same season was 1997, with Pollard going for 116 and Dilger 380. That represented 16% of the Indianapolis passing yards.
In 1998, everything changed forever.
Peyton Manning‘s rookie year featured two tight ends as Indianapolis had never seen them before. For the first time, the Colts had two tight ends each go over 300 yards. It represented a new balance between receiving tight ends that had not previously been present. Dilger and Pollard accounted for 17% of the Indianapolis passing offense that season. It only grew from there.
Dilger and Pollard jumped to 21%, then 23%, then 27% of the Colts total passing offense in 2001 as Pollard overtook Dilger as the primary recieving target. During most of those years, Indianapolis struggled to find a compliment to Marvin Harrison. The receivers were largely terrible, and Manning became more and more dependant on the tight ends to pick up first downs. Pollard and Dilger combined for 1,082 yards in 2001 and Dilger made the Pro Bowl before leaving as a free agent.
In 2002, the Colts had not yet replaced Dilger. Pollard was on his own and Reggie Wayne was still maturing. The result of not having two dependable tight ends was Marvin Harrison‘s insane 143 catch, 1700 yard season. That year, Edgerrin James was recovering from a knee injury, Dilger was gone, and Wayne was still young. The result was that Manning and Harrison drug the Colts kicking and screaming into the playoffs. It was a two-man offense, and the end result was a playoff beat-down of epic proportions.
The Colts ‘shocked’ the pundits by going out and taking Dallas Clark in the first round of the 2003 draft, but in hindsight, it was an obvious move. The Indy offense was unbalanced, and Polian’s first instinct was to fix it by adding a tight end. After never having had two 300 yard tight ends in Indianapolis, the Colts had had two every year from 1998-2001. They wanted to go back to that balance.
The result of returning to two tight ends was that Peyton Manning started winning MVP awards. Clark’s rookie year was cut short by an injury that likely cost Indianapolis a Super Bowl. Clark played in just 10 games, but had 340 yards receiving, as the duo accounted for 21% of the Indy offense that year, despite the lost time.
Manning’s epic 2004 saw Clark overtake Pollard as the primary threat, but receivers were the rage with Stokely joining Harrison and Wayne with over 1,000 yards and 10 scores. Both Clark and Pollard went over 300 yards, but their total share of the offense dropped to just 16%. Pollard would leave the club, but the Colts still featured Bryan Fletcher heavily in 2005. He had 202 yards to go with 488 for Clark, and the TE share jumped slightly to 17%.
2006 was the Super Bowl year, and part of what made the offense hum was finding a way to replace a second elite tight end in composite. Bryan Fletcher Ben Utech split time, and combined for more than 500 yards receiving. Together with Clark, the TEs put up nearly 1000 yards and accounted for 22% of the offense, the highest percentage since Ken Dilger left Indianapolis.
The trio increased their production in 2007, and combined for 1123 yards, 28% of the Colts offense, an all-time high. Marvin Harrison missed most of the year with an injury, giving more targets to the tight ends. The Colts let both Fletcher and Utech walk after the season, however, and things would never be the same.
Dallas Clark had a massive break-out year in 2008, posting a huge 848 yard season, an Indianapolis record. Gijon Robinson was his mirror, however, and his 19 catches for 166 yards made for a weak complement. The tight ends posted 25% of the Colts passing offense, but it wasn’t a true two-tight end grouping. Robinson simply wasn’t a threat to catch the ball. He was mostly around to block (poorly).
The Colts became more wedded to Clark in 2009, and his 1106 yard, 10 touchdown season was a career peak. Tom Santi chipped in eight catches, but the Colts were no longer the same offense they had been. In 2010, Jacob Tamme and Clark combined for 978 yards, but they rarely played together. Tamme merely replaced Clark’s production after an injury. The same story was repeated in 2011.
As Dallas Clark improved to All-Pro levels, the Colts forgot about two tight ends. The span of 2008-2011 also represented some of the worst running teams the Colts had in the era. The Colts were at their most relentless (aside from the 2004 aberration) when they featured two receiving TEs capable of posting 300 yard seasons.
I applaud the move to take two TEs early in the draft, because it will give the Colts the basis for a dynamic offense. Ryan Grigson will still have to find Andrew Luck an elite receiving target to go with them, but he certainly made a good start toward rebuilding the Colts offense in 2012.