In the preseason this year, it was assumed new Chicago Bears offensive coordinator would build his offense around the tight end position. A former NFL tight end himself, Tice made great use of the position during his time as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings from 2002-2005.
During training camp, Chicago's tight ends caught pass after pass each practice. Even with the weapons the offense has at wide receiver, quarterback Jay Cutler threw repeatedly to the likes of Kellen Davis, Matt Spaeth, Evan Rodriguez and Kyle Adams.
Yet, heading into the Week 4 matchup against the Dallas Cowboys, the Bears' tight ends had been almost invisible. Combined the group had just six passes for 49 yards.
Then Davis came alive. He dropped a pass early in the contest but Cutler kept throwing to him. Davis made a great third-quarter catch on third down to keep alive a crucial drive, then made a circus snag late in the contest, reaching over a defender, tipping the ball to himself and making the grab on his back.
Davis finished the game with three catches for 62 yards. His presence over the middle of the field helped take some of the attention away from Brandon Marshall, who ended the contest with seven caches for 138 yards and a TD.
"I think week by week teams are going to try and take [Marshall] away and just make those other guys make plays," Cutler said. "We have a lot of belief in our guys — in Kellen and Alshon [Jeffery] and [Devin Hester] and Matt Forte, all those guys we think they can make plays."
While Davis has been the most-targeted tight end, Spaeth could be the team's most valuable. His role has been mainly as a blocker, a role in which he has excelled through four weeks.
"He's a wild-card in our offense," said Cutler. "He moves around a lot. We ask him to do a lot of different roles in the passing game and the running game. He doesn't get the credit he deserves. Week in and week out he's a guy you can count on, no matter what we ask him to do."
Against the Cowboys, Davis did a lot of blocking on the left edge, giving tackle J'Marcus Webb help with Cowboys speed rusher DeMarcus Ware. As a result, the team gave up just two sacks, allowing Cutler to get into a rhythm.
"Matt is a role tight end similar to what I was when I played," Tice said. "He's never going to go out and catch 12 balls. But he's going to have a very important part in our run game. He's going to have a very important part in our protection game. We're running the ball a lot with him in there. We're [using] play-action a lot with him in there. And we utilized him a lot in the chip game the other night."
Spaeth has a relatively thankless job. His role will rarely put him in the spotlight or on the stat sheet but, as a blocker, he has a ton of value in this offense.
"To be honest with you, I don't really care if I don't get the credit," said Spaeth. "I want to be out there, I want to play football. I'll do whatever they ask me to do. Whether that's blocking DeMarcus Ware, pass blocking, different things, I just do what they ask me to do. No matter what it is, I just want to try to do it to my best ability."
Rodriguez and Adams both play "move" tight end, which is a hybrid fullback/tight end position that Jim Kleinsasser made famous under Tice. Rodriguez has excelled as a lead blocker, especially in short-yardage situations. He's currently on the sidelines with a knee injury but Adams has filled in admirably. Both players are big enough and athletic enough to be effective in Tice's "F-back" position.
Tice chose to keep four tight ends this year, something the team hasn't done in years. So far, the play of these four has more than justified that personnel decision.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.