There has been no shortage of stories this week about Patriots TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez — and it's no wonder. With the vision of Bill Belichick — and an assist from Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis and a few others — the TE position might never again be the same.
This, however, is a lesson in contrast, the story of the other tight ends playing in Super Bowl XLVI, the Giants' Jake Ballard and Bear Pascoe.
Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 2,237 receiving yards and 24 TDs during the regular season; Ballard and Pascoe together tallied less than a third of the yardage and one-sixth the TD total.
Gronkowski and Hernandez seem to defy logic with their size-to-speed and athleticism ratio.
Ballard and Pascoe are, well, here is Giants TEs coach Mike Pope's description: "If we are going to the Olympics and running the 100 meters, you probably won't see either of their names."
Gronk creates media frenzies with his attempts at speaking Spanish and supersized endzone spikes. Ballard and Pascoe go about their business quietly.
But "the other TEs" have delivered in key moments for the Giants en route to Super Bowl XLVI. To assume that the rocket ascent of QB Eli Manning and the three amigos (Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham) happened without any assistance from these other two this season would be incorrect.
Ballard, an Ohio State product, was essentially thrown into the starting spot. The team knew that starter Kevin Boss was likely to depart via free agency after the 2010 season, so it was interested in drafting a tight end that April. As far back as Pope can recall, the club always has targeted tight ends who can block. According to Pope, who's in his 29th year as an NFL assistant, those guys are on the verge of extinction.
"When the draft was over, I started looking around to the Big Ten because I knew that quality of football would be good," he said. We watched some tape, watched him on the goal line knocking some people back against Michigan and against some better teams, and saw some things in him that led us to believe that he could fit.
"We started to research. He was a good high school basketball player. They didn't use him as a receiver at OSU because they had All-American wide receivers; they used him primarily as a blocker. … And then he was in that crazy quarter system so he wasn't even out of school until the middle of June. Because he was going to miss OTAs and minicamps, not a lot people were excited about him because he would be behind."
The Giants took a shot, signing Ballard as an undrafted free agent. After getting injured and spending his rookie season on the practice squad, Ballard, who spent that time feverishly working on his route running and receiving skills, flashed in his second preseason. He began to develop the trust of Manning and earned the starting job. After steadily improving and becoming a bigger part of the offense in the first two months of the ’11 campaign, Ballard and the Giants visited the Patriots in Foxborough in Week Nine.
With the Giants trailing by four points and less than two minutes remaining, Manning quickly drove his club downfield. He positioned the Giants at the New England one-yard line, where the Patriots stoned New York on first and second down. On 3rd-and-goal, Manning got Patriots LB Tracy White to bite on play-action, allowing Ballard to get a step on White heading toward the back left corner of the endzone. Manning threw a laser right on Ballard's hands and the Giants stunned the Patriots to win 24-20.
For obvious reasons, the game-winner is the play people will remember most. But it was the 28-yard completion to Ballard on 3rd-and-10 from the Giants' 39 earlier in the drive that really gave New York a chance to steal victory.
"It's surprising how effective he has been getting down the field," offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said. "And he is not doing it with speed, I can tell you that. But he's got a little bit of guile to him, a little bit of awareness. He is a very smart guy, he has a great feel for finding the openings and he has been terrific with the run after the catch. So, you might not look at him and say, 'there is your speed tight end,' but he has made a lot of big plays for us down the field."
Ballard's 15.9 yards per catch in 2011 led all tight ends with 10 or more catches — and was 1.2 yards better than Gronkowski's season average. Ballard finished the regular season with a respectable 38 grabs for 604 yards and four TDs, despite being slowed by a knee injury the last month of the season. He said on Thursday he feels as good as he has in a long time.
"I've had a slow couple of games because my knee has still been bothering me and I wasn't running as fast as I could, and getting open was a challenge because it would hurt when I was making cuts and all that stuff," he said. "Now we're here and my knee is feeling a lot better than it was. So I am definitely excited about playing a game as close to 100 percent as I can be."
With the Patriots keyed in on slowing down the Giants' WR corps, keep an eye on Ballard.
Bear Pascoe sounds like the name of an old-school tight end who's ready to de-cleat someone. His defining play this season came two weeks ago, against his old team, the 49ers, in the NFC championship game.
"It was just a little 3x1 play." Pascoe said of his three-yard TD reception, the first score of his three-year career. "Once the ball was snapped, Jake and Vic [Victor Cruz] got jammed on the front side. Jake was trying to get to his route; it kind of worked out for me, it caused a pile. The defense was trying to cover Cruz coming back across the middle and they forgot all about me. So I kind of slipped right through, went over the "Mike" ’backer, slipped onto that front side and just found a hole right in Eli's vision; it was almost like it was meant to be, because everything just opened up. I turned around, only had to take two or three steps right into the endzone. It was good."
The sight of a 6-5, 283-pound guy by the name of Bear attempting to downplay his excitement while recalling his greatest achievement to date in the NFL was priceless. To get in the endzone for the first time ever, in the postseason, against the team that drafted and then cut you — that's pretty cool.
Pascoe chips in wherever possible for the Giants. He is on the field a lot in two-TE sets, but also has spent time at fullback.
Giants GM Jerry Reese, on Thursday, might have said it best in describing the difference between the Patriots' and Giants' tight ends. "There are different ways to skin a cat," he said. "It would be great to have those type of players, but you have to win with the hand you're dealt and our coaches have done a good job with the players we've put out there and their skill set."
The Giants' "B" team of tight ends, Bear and Ballard, aren't flashy. They'll never be mistaken for athletic freaks. But they have made plays when called upon this season and that's good enough for the Giants.