Antonio Gates is one of the premier weapons in the Charger's Air Coryell Offense.
With the installation of the Air Coryell Offense last season, the Panthers transitioned into a down field passing offense with roots in the power running game. Under the tutelage and watchful eye of Offensive Coordinator Rob Chudzinski and QB Coach Mike Shula, Cam Newton and the Panthers Offense flourished, setting numerous NFL Records in the process. One of the weapons utilized by the Panthers Offense last season was the two Tight Ends, Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen. The duo teamed up with Cam Newton and their positional coach at the University of Miami, Chudzinski, to accrue a combined 82 rec. 955 yards and 9 TD's, accounting for 26% of Cam's completions, 23% of his yards, and 43% of his Touchdown passes.
However, with the possible departure of Jeremy Shockey, much of the slack will fall to Greg Olsen and even Gary Barnidge next season.
With the astronomical numbers put up by New England's Rob Gronkowski and New Orleans' Jimmy Graham, many teams around the NFL are realizing the usefulness of a competent/athletic Tight End. Yet looking into the annals of history of the Air Coryell Offense, it is apparent that the TE has always been a weapon of choice.
History of TE's in the Air Coryell
Much of the success reaped in by Don Coryell and Dan Fouts in San Diego could be attributed to the match up problems presented by Kellen Winslow, the 'Godfather' of the modern Tight End. During his 9 year career in San Diego, Winslow amassed 541 receptions, 6741 yards, and 45 TD's, landing him a spot in the Hall of Fame (Class of '95).
Then Offensive Coordinator/Assistant Coach Al Saunders utilized Winslow's athleticism and size (6'5 250 lbs.), and lined him up either in the slot against a diminutive nickel CB, or in a three point stance on the line, where he would draw a slower LB or a SS in coverage. Both situations provided favorable match ups for Winslow and Fouts, allowing for Winslow to lead the NFL in receptions in 1980 and 1981.
(Off Topic Side note: Norv Turner was Dan Fouts backup at the University of Oregon in the early 1970's).
Over a decade later the Chargers under Marty Schottenheimer signed UDFA Antonio Gates out of Kent State. Gates was a gifted athlete, having played both basketball and football throughout college and high school. Gates (6'4 260 lbs.) possessed straight line speed and a vertical leap that helped him become a staple in the Charger's passing game (under Schottenheimer and later Norv Turner, as well as with Drew Brees and Philip Rivers). Gates has been appointed to 8 straight Pro Bowls and 5 All Pro Teams during his 9 seasons in San Diego, amassing 593 receptions, 7783 yards, and 76 TD's.
Side Note: During his tenure in San Diego, Rob Chudzinski was Gates' TE Coach for 4 seasons.
At the heart of the matter, the TE can provide scads of mismatches for the Opposing Defense. A well sized TE with good athleticism and soft hands can become a puissant tool in a passing offense.
The most common alignment of a TE is flanking an Offensive Tackle on the Line of Scrimmage. More often than not, this arrangement will draw a LB or Safety in coverage. The torpid LB's matchup well in size with the TE, however, the fleet footed TE can out run the linebacker and separate easily, and while a Safety may fare well in coverage of a TE, there aren't many safeties that can match up in size with a 6'5 250 lbs. TE.
Placing the TE in the slot has also found favor in the NFL recently. Placing a TE in the slot affords a matchup with either an OLB or an undersized nickel back. With a severe advantage in weight and size, the TE is able to manhandle the DB, easily winning jump balls or outmuscling the nickel on a curl route.
In addition, lining the TE out wide provides a similar effect, as the TE would be matched up with a quick, yet minute CB, replicating the aforementioned immense size advantage.
One last alignment for a TE is the H-Back, in the Shot Gun. In juxtaposing a TE with the QB and a RB, the offense effectively masks the assignment of the TE, who can either stay in the pocket as a 6th blocker, or can swing out wide as a checkdown target/safety blanket for the QB, or even a wheel route that could take the TE on a 9 route. This role pits the TE against an OLB, who more than likely can't match the athleticism of the TE.
The Present in Carolina
In 2011, the Panthers utilized a myriad of 2 TE sets, lining Shockey and Olsen all over the field to present match up problems. The Panthers utilized their TE's in numerous alignments, where the TE's could make a difference. Here's some videos of the different positions of the TE's.
Greg Olsen, Week 3, set out wide.
Greg Olsen lined up in the slot, Week 8.
Greg Olsen Week 8 TD (via proCanes)
Greg Olsen lined up in the backfield, Week 3
Touchdown Greg Olsen (via SSGOKU44)
Jeremy Shockey lined on the LOS, Week 16
Moving into next season, I think we'll see a lot more involvement from Greg Olsen and Gary Barnidge. As opposing teams bracket Steve Smith, Cam will need to shift his attention to his secondary reads, being the two TE's. Barnidge and Olsen can stretch the field for Cam, maligning the defensive coverages, opening up the middle of the field for the WR's, or screen passes to the RB's. In addition, the TE's can provide a safety blanket for Cam as he makes reads, just as they did last season. The Panthers also rely on TE's to move the chains, as the Panther's TE's accrued 51 first downs in 2011.
And while the Panthers may look to run the ball more in 2012, the passing game may tilt towards the TE's unless one of the innumerable WR's on the roster steps up. Ultimately, an increase in running the ball will open up the passing game, lulling the defense into a copacetic defense of the run, opening up a deep seam route for a Tight End, or a 9 route for a WR.
I predict a bigger season from Olsen, and the emergence of Gary Barnidge, and perhaps one of the other TE's on the roster.