the Easterbrook “feature the TE” hypothesis

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Gregg Easterbrook hypothesized last week in his TMQ column on ESPN.com that featuring the tight end (i.e. throwing to the TE a lot) is a common feature of winning football teams.  Easterbrook states this is because tight ends can take advantage of the weaknesses of the Tampa 2 defense, which is supposedly all the rage in the NFL these days. 

Let’s take a closer look at Easterbrook’s hypothesis that featuring the tight end helps define a winning team in the era of the Tampa 2 defense.

Here are the total number of times tight ends were targeted by each team in 2006 (taken from stats kept by fftoday.com):
Team: TE Targets
Arizona: 47
Atlanta: 118
Baltimore: 142
Buffalo: 39
Carolina: 62
Chicago: 92
Cincinatti: 33
Cleveland: 165
Dallas: 116
Denver: 71
Detroit: 42
Green Bay: 110
Houston: 51
Indianapolis: 136
Jacksonville: 85
Kansas City: 103
Miami: 114
Minnesota: 67
New England: 125
New Orleans: 68
NY Giants: 129
NY Jets: 45
Oakland: 62
Philadelphia: 102
Pittsburgh: 55
San Diego: 137
Seattle: 66
San Francisco: 96
St. Louis: 34
Tampa Bay: 78
Tennessee: 100
Washington: 100

The team targeting its tight ends most in 2006 was Cleveland, with 165 targets. The top 12 teams were (* means that team made the playoffs):

1. cle
2. bal*
3. sd*
4. ind*
5.nyg*
6. ne*
7. atl
8. dal*
9. mia
10. gb
11. kc*
12. phi*

8 out of 12, or 66%, of the top TE-targeting teams made the playoffs. But this statistic could simply indicate that teams that pass more overall tend to make the playoffs; teams that are generally pass-oriented would probably pass to the TE often as a byproduct of being a pass-happy squad.

Let’s examine a more telling statistic: the ratio of TE targets to passes thrown. By this measure, the top 12 teams are:

1. cle
2. sd*
3. atl
4. bal*
5. nyg*
6. ind*
7. ne*
8. dal*
9. kc*
10. ten
11. sf
12. was

Now only 7 out of the top 12 TE-featuring offenses (when passing) made the playoffs. 

 These stats seem to support Easterbrook’s hypothesis that featuring the TE is correlated with winning, but they do not say anything about whether that correlation arises from the defensive schemes offenses face.  Does Cleveland throw to its TE more than any other team in the league because they face more opponents running the Tampa 2 defense?  Or is it because Kellen Winslow, Jr. was the best weapon on their offense in 2006?

I will attempt to test that part of the hypothesis, that featuring the TE is the best response to an opponent running the Tampa 2, in my next post.