It’s surprisingly unusual for two Super Bowl opponents to have dominant playmaking tight ends. Super Bowl 57, featuring the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles, is, therefore, more the exception than the rule, thanks to the elite Travis Kelce and near-elite Dallas Goedert.
We’ve examined every Super Bowl result and the competing teams’ regular seasons to quantify statistically superlative tight ends, their correlation to Super Bowl victory, and how such information might impact betting decision-making in 2023 and beyond.
Super Bowl Results: The Dominant TE
The tight end position has evolved dramatically in the last 60+ years. Here’s a snapshot of the position’s offensive transformation, through the lens of the tight ends who broke the mold.
1960s to 1980s
As a 22-year-old rookie in 1961, Mike Ditka cracked 1,000 receiving yards en route to Rookie of the Year honors. Jackie Smith joined the NFL two years later, reaching his apex in season No. 5 with a sterling 56-1,205-9 receiving line.
How unusual were these feats for possibly the two best playmaking TEs of the 1960s? Well, Ditka never exceeded 904 receiving yards after his rookie year, while Smith never exceeded 810 before or after his previously highlighted monster season.
The following decade, guys like Riley Odoms sustained meaningful TE offense. In fact, Odoms’ best campaign (in his seventh season in 1978) saw an impressive 54-829 receiving line. Both numbers would mark career highs for the longtime Denver Bronco.
The year 1978 also ushered in the next wave of increasingly offensive-minded tight ends, beginning with all-time great Ozzie Newsome. Kellen Winslow entered the league in 1979 and proceeded to compile three 88+ reception, 1,000+ yard efforts in his first five campaigns.
Raiders great Todd Christensen arguably had the greatest TE stretch in the 20th century, producing four consecutive seasons with 80+ catches and 987+ yards from 1983 through 1986. During that four-year span, he caught an incredible 349 passes for 4,394 yards. For context, all-time greats like Shannon Sharpe, Antonio Gates, Rob Gronkowski — and yes, even Tony Gonzalez — never matched Christensen’s feat during any four-year stretch.
Amazingly, Christensen had only one NFL catch in his first three seasons — a TD reception in the opening round of the 1980 playoffs. The problem? He had always been a fullback and, at first, resisted team pressures to shift to tight end. But he caught 152 passes at BYU, and clearly, the Raiders (and the Cowboys that drafted him) saw that he could be more than a bruiser on the ground.
Had the TE role been more established when he entered the league — had he played in a later era, perhaps — Christensen might have been on the tight end equivalent of Mount Rushmore. Instead, he dominated briefly and then exited the stage, paving the way for the next generation of greats.
1990s to 2000s
Sharpe was the second-to-last player taken in the seventh round of the 1990 draft. When his career ended 13 years later, he was the NFL’s all-time TE leader in catches, yards, and touchdowns with an 815-10,060-62 receiving line. For context, the other 17 tight ends drafted that year combined for 1,106 receptions, 12,179 yards, and 81 touchdowns.
As with Christensen, Sharpe was a converted tight end, having played wideout in college and to begin his professional career. At “only” 6’2″, Sharpe was deemed by some to be undersized as a TE. But he developed into one of the best tight ends the league has ever seen, serving frequently as John Elway’s coveted No. 1 target for many years.
There are certainly dozens of other tight ends we could touch on in this section. But Gonzalez and Antonio Gates lead the way. Gonzalez was a TE in college, helping to ease his quick transition to the NFL level. Once there, he became (statistically) the greatest tight end in league history.
Defying logic, Gonzalez broke out early in his career, despite Elvis Grbac helming the Chiefs’ passing attack for most of his first five seasons. That’s no knock on Grbac. But it reinforces how exceptional Gonzalez was. In fact, beginning in his 30s, he continued his incredible Pro Bowl streak despite catching balls thrown by an aged Damon Huard, Brodie Croyle, and Tyler Thigpen.
Gates had a very different start to his career, choosing basketball over football in college, and then trying to latch on to an NFL team after graduation. The strategy worked because he was simply that good.
2010s to the Present
Not much needs to be said about Kelce, Gronkowski, and Jimmy Graham, or pre-contemporaries like Jason Witten and Greg Olsen. These days, the best TEs can go toe-to-toe statistically with some of the best WRs.
In 2015, for the first time ever, four tight ends cracked 1,000 receiving yards, while a fifth (the often-injured Jordan Reed) collected 952 in 14 games. It was actually the second time five TEs had picked up 950+ receiving yards. The first time was in 2009, led by Gates. Only three years earlier, zero TEs had hit 925+ receiving yards.
From my perspective, that span from 2006 to 2009 marked the seismic shift for this critically important position. It used to be that a handful of teams had a good or great tight end. But since the start of the 2010s, an increasing number of franchises have sought TEs as offensive difference-makers — not merely to supplement passing attacks but to help lead them.
Actionable Intelligence for Bettors
The previous section sets the stage for some fascinating findings regarding tight end prowess and Super Bowl outcomes. Namely, when a tight end is the best receiver on a team competing in the title game, has that correlated more often into Super Bowl victory or defeat? Here are some takeaways, applying data from all Super Bowls beginning with the first.
Super Bowl Advantage: Teams With a Great Tight End
This research pulls data from every Super Bowl opponent since the first big game. I’m most interested in scenarios where a Super Bowl contender’s TE led that team during the regular season in receptions and/or receiving yards. Essentially, did the passing attack run through that TE more than any other player? If so, how did this correlate with Super Bowl results?
For example, TE John Mackey led the Baltimore Colts in 1968 with 45 catches. His Colts lost to the Jets in that year’s Super Bowl. The next such example occurred eight years later, when the Oakland Raiders’ Dave Casper led his team with 53 catches. The Raiders went on to defeat the Vikings in Super Bowl XI.
Through Super Bowl 56, 16 teams have competed with a TE who’s led that team in receptions and/or receiving yards during that regular season. Interestingly, half of those teams have prevailed, and naturally, the other half have lost.
Possibly more interestingly, when a tight end has led his team only in receptions (not receiving yards), that Super Bowl contender has won only two of six big games (33%). But when a TE has led his team in receiving yards (irrespective of whether they led their team in receptions), they’ve won six of 10 Super Bowls (60%).
There are opportunities and challenges for teams that lean relatively heavily on their star TE. One big question is whether defenses are able to clamp down on the tight end, forcing the opposing team to focus on potentially “lesser” receivers.
Yes, easier said than done. But the data on this front is fascinating. When one of these 16 team-leading tight ends has scored in the Super Bowl, their team has gone 5-1 (83% win rate). Conversely, when the star TE has been held out of the end zone, that team has gone 3-7 (43% win rate).
In fact, these scoreless tight end teams have gone 1-5 in Super Bowls this century. The only time a scoreless TE’s team has prevailed was in Super Bowl 35, when Sharpe mustered one catch for five yards in the Ravens’ 34-7 stomping of the Giants.
Baltimore QB Trent Dilfer averaged only 8.8 completions in four playoff games that year. Sharpe led his team in receiving yards in each of the first three contests, but his heroics simply weren’t needed in a blowout Super Bowl victory.
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