The Playbook Shuffle
ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Tim Wright is trying to count on his fingers how many offensive coordinators he’s played for. There were two in high school, and four in five seasons at Rutgers, and five more in the NFL. That’s 11. Not enough fingers.
Along the way, the Lions’ third-year tight end encountered five separate NFL playbooks with five separate philosophies and five ways to describe what some call a curl route.
“Spot, sit, hook, stick and break,” he says, as if rattling off a grocery list. “For some reason, that’s different everywhere you go.” That’s five different ways to say run 10 yards and turn around. And that’s just the beginning.
The novelty of Wright’s recent and frequent travels—three teams in 81 days for a player who caught 54 passes as a rookie only two seasons ago in Tampa—is something he has trouble explaining. Why can’t this raw tight end talent stick anywhere? It has as much to do with the position as the player.
More on that later.
First, consider the NFL odyssey of this 25-year-old from Neptune Township, N.J., who caught just 50 passes at Rutgers. Scooped up by the Bucs as an undrafted rookie in 2013, he finished that season with 54 catches for 571 yards and five touchdowns. He became one of eight tight ends since the AFL-NFL merger, including Keith Jackson and Jeremy Shockey, to catch more than 50 passes as a rookie.
In a move that surprised many Tampa fans, before the 2014 season new Bucs coach Lovie Smith dealt the former college wide receiver to the Patriots along with a fifth-round pick in exchange for guard Logan Mankins. Wright was in the middle of studying new coordinator Jeff Tedford’s playbook when he got the news. Unsure of his status in Tedford’s offense, he had been living at a Renaissance Inn and waiting on the go-ahead to rent.
“It was a surprise,” Wright says. “You never see that coming. But in college, I got used to learning new systems. I’m able to flush the information and pick up something else. It’s about embracing the situation and doing everything you can.
“At Rutgers, I learned things conceptually. The coaches always taught us to learn things as a concept rather than knowing your route. That creates some memory that you draw on later.”
He’d need it. Though Wright has a Super Bowl ring from his season with the Patriots, he failed to duplicate his rookie numbers in 2014, catching 26 passes with six touchdowns. The Pats waived him on June 11, 2015, and the Bucs re-claimed him the next day over nine other bids, only to trade him to the Lions on Aug. 31 in exchange for a kicker.
From Bill Belichick to Lovie Smith to Jim Caldwell in less than three months. What gives? After all, the irascible Belichick last October told reporters “nobody works harder” than Wright. The answer lies in the NFL’s insatiable demand for tight ends.
Consider the NFL’s transaction logs over the past 10 years. In August, the busiest month for roster pruning in pro football, 32 teams combined to make 90 transactions involving tight ends this year. Five years ago, that number was 44. Five years before that, in 2005, that number was 20. The tight end became a sought-after passing weapon during that span, and every play-caller came up with two or three ways to use them and their own ideas about what the perfect tight end looks like. The willingness to take a flier on a tweener WR/TE grew tenfold, and the opportunities for players who fit the mold multiplied similarly.
Wright, who added 15 pounds to get to 235 and play the position in Tampa, didn’t fit Tedford’s vision for the position. He earned his lowest marks as a run-blocker. “Going against career defensive ends was a tough battle, but I played with a lot of heart,” Wright says. “I did what I could to hold those guys on the edge.”
Later, Belichick was grooming Wright to be an Aaron Hernandez replacement as an ‘F’ or ‘move’ tight end, but more experienced players leapfrogged Wright in the postseason pecking order. The Bucs, who picked up Wright after the Patriots released him, already had Austin Seferian-Jenkins, a 2014 second-round pick out of Washington, who they figure will become the souped-up version of Wright.
Enter the Lions and assistant head coach/tight ends coach Ron Prince, who happened to be the Rutgers coordinator the year after Wright left. Prince watched Wright beat out fan favorite Joseph Fauria for the opportunity to back up Eric Ebron and Brandon Pettigrew this season.
“Part of it is a credit to him because of his intellectual ability, the ability to compartmentalize and study,” Prince says. “I would ask him, Did you have this formation, what was it called, what were your reads on this route, trying to get a sense of how universal his understanding was.
“And the reality was, he’s been with some really good coordinators. You couple that with the fact that he is a very bright person who can study and break it down, and he was already trained well in route running.”
For Wright, the obstacle has never been the passing game. He’s able to visualize routes as part of larger passing concepts, discarding old terms in place of new ones. At one NFL stop a pair of go routes might have been called ‘99’—now it’s ‘double go.’ At one team, the playcall might have listed a formation, then the motion call. With another team, the motion may be announced first, then the formation call is the end result. This is ancillary information which Wright says he's able to mentally erase from team to team to the extent that he can't recall the specifics of each team. The hard part for most young tight ends, Prince says, is mastering each new coach’s expectations in the running game.
“I think there’s more variance in the running game,” Prince says. “There are certain route combinations that everyone uses, but in the running game every team is a little bit different, based on who the runner is and the style of the linemen they’ve selected.
“You combine the difficulty of that with spread offenses plugging tight ends all over the field, and you see why tight ends can fall behind. It takes a young person a while to learn how to block the way that team wants him to block.”
Wright says one NFL tight ends coach preferred his tight ends to attack a defensive end squarely on combination blocks, with the shoulders pointed upfield, while another wanted a full commitment to driving the opponent’s hip. “You can start to tell the difference between the coaches who played and the coaches who draw from watching players in the league,” Wright says.
You’d think all this knowledge of the inner workings of so many offenses would make today’s tight ends hot commodities in the information trade, but that’s rarely the case. There are three reasons, according to Caldwell, why media and fans overestimate the usefulness of players who have spent time on opposing teams.
“For one thing, these guys are trying to hard to learn the offense in the new place as quickly as possible,” Caldwell said. “They’ve really forgotten most if not all of the old info.
“Plus every team knows this goes on when they cut players, so a lot of teams are now waiting to put in a good portion of play-call language until the regular season starts, so the guys cut in the preseason don’t have up to date information.
“And then you’ve got to remember; teams talk. Most of these players understand if they talk about that previous team, it might get back to them. Guys will decline to discuss the other team out of fear of being labeled that way. They want to be respected.”
Being respected is as big a motivation as any for Wright. The toughest part about the mind-flushing and cramming process is the specter that you might have to do it all over again very soon. There’s something embarrassing about being shipped from team to team despite your best efforts. If you have to move around the league, getting traded is far preferable to getting cut.
“Getting traded feels like a team really likes you and can envision you in their offense. Getting cut is a different story.
“But I feel like I’m growing my résumé. People all over the league are seeing what I can do.”
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