Historically, being one hasn’t exactly been glamourous. In decades past, unless your name was Kellen Winslow, Mike Ditka or Ozzie Newsome, people rarely noticed the position. Being a tight end on most teams meant staying home to take on defensive ends and linebackers while sealing the edge on running plays. It meant making a living alongside the tackles and getting about as much thankless appreciation as they did, too.
As the NFL has morphed into a pass-first league, traditional in-line blocking tight ends have started to give way to hybrid tight end/receivers who sport big, tall frames and are athletic, quick and extremely fast.
New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham and New England’s Rob Gronkowski both mirror these freakish skill sets. And their respective offenses have become explosive because of the change in the approach of the tight end and the value that offensive coordinators have placed on their role.
Both Graham and Gronkowski are game-breaking receivers first and foremost. And both aren’t known for their blocking prowess.
Currently in Titletown, when it comes to the tight end spot, most of the talk seems to center around the outspoken Jermichael Finley who has lit up the skies in seasons past.
When healthy, he is an elite component of the passing game only – in the same echelon as Graham and Gronkowski. When motivated he has the potential to be one of the league’s best tight ends. If he can eliminate the mental errors and build on a solid second half of 2012 he may finally put to rest any lingering concerns Ted Thompson has about drawing up a lucrative, long-term contract that would keep him in green and gold for years to come.
But he doesn’t exactly have a reputation as a willing or effective blocker. And for a Green Bay team looking to become tougher, that could work against him.
That’s where Andrew Quarless comes in.
Early in his collegiate career at Penn State, Quarless saw the field regularly – as a blocker – rarely did he have his number called in critical
passing situations. He managed to grab a total of 46 passes for 610 yards and five touchdowns during his first three seasons in Happy Valley. Respectable numbers but far from elite. Quarless blossomed into an NFL prospect during his senior campaign when he nearly doubled both his career catches and yardage, snaring 41 balls for 536 yards while adding three scores.
Green Bay saw enough in the talented player to draft him in the fifth round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
When Finley went down in early 2010 with what turned out to be a season-ending knee injury, the rookie tight end Quarless stepped up – and then some. His presence, maturity and zeal at the line of scrimmage as an aggressive in-line blocker helped Green Bay win a Super Bowl title. The fact he added 21 catches for 238 yards and a touchdown in the passing game was merely icing on the cake. He seemed poised to become the yin to Finley’s yang within the Packer offense.
The idea was to have Finley run routes and bait the secondary while Quarless filled in as a blocker in sub-packages in the running game. Both would be excellent complements in the play-action offense.
The 2011 season marked Finley’s much-anticipated return. While he was clearly not the same player as he was before his knee injury, Finley remained firmly entrenched as the starter at tight end. Subsequently it was Quarless who was relegated to performing blocking duties. And he excelled.
Bob McAdoo, then Green Bay’s tight ends coach, felt that Quarless was becoming a player in the mold of Finley – with capable receiving skills. Where his value is was his role as a much better and more aggressive blocker. A sputtering Packers running game needed as many anchors as it could get on the line of scrimmage and Quarless was more than happy to help. He took pride in pile driving linebackers at the snap and relished using his massive arms to level opponents.
So when Quarless’s knee buckled during kick coverage in an early December game against the Giants in the later stages of that year it was an especially difficult blow. All it took was one split second for Quarless to realize that his season was over and that his 2012 campaign would be in serious jeopardy. Almost immediately the team put on him injured reserve.
For the player who had worked extremely hard over his first two seasons to solidify his reputation as a team player and who had augmented his receiving arsenal as an excellent blocker, getting hurt and being told he was out of action – possibly for the entire next year – was difficult to hear.
At the time, McAdoo didn’t have a clear-cut replacement for him among a fairly inexperienced group of tight ends. For Quarless, it was the beginning of a long road back to the team which would be filled with uncertainty at every turn.
He spent most of the 2012 season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. He worked hard to regain strength in his knee. To regain his ability to cut. To nurture the multiple ligaments that were shredded completely on that errant special teams play over one year ago. Ultimately, he didn’t play a snap on offense last year.
Which brings us to today.
Andrew Quarless’s return to action as the Green Bay offseason program has unfolded to this point has been notable. He’s demonstrated the ability to make quick cuts and he’s been pining to run one of offensive coordinator Tom Clements’ popular tight end seam routes – a play where the tight end releases his block and sprints upfield toward the goal line. In a recent minicamp practice, Quarless ran that route - aggressively after making the catch over his shoulder- and looked fluid and energized. It was another positive step in his recovery and a sign of things to come – hopefully.
Granted, practice hasn’t been full-contact. But by most accounts, Quarless looks like a new player. He’s clearly worked on his conditioning for the better part of the last calendar year while focusing almost exclusively on his lower body. His trademark, thickly-laced, colorful armband tattoos that adorn each arm are still there, but this offseason he’s said that he could stand to get bigger in that department again.
For now, however, his focus is to rediscover his bread and butter – being an explosive blocker on the flank of the offensive line. His year spent out of commission absorbing the playbook and salivating for a return to meaningful action this fall will undoubtedly spell bad things for whomever is across from him on the line of scrimmage in 2013.
For Packers fans itching to see a tougher team, getting back their fiercest tight end should be a welcome sight.