Does the Two-Tight End Set Provide an Offensive Boost?

An extra tight end seems to take pressure off the other receivers, but what does it do for an offense and quarterback?

Some of the greatest wisdom I’ve ever learned came from one of the most thrilling duos to ever grace the silver screen: L.A.P.D. Sergeant Roger Murtaugh and Detective Martin Riggs, from Lethal Weapon.

Roger Murtaugh: Are you really crazy? Or are you as good as you say you are?
Martin Riggs: You're just gonna have to trust me.”

That teamwork and trust that Murtaugh and Riggs developed wasn’t easily won. If you’ve seen the Lethal Weapon series, you know that there were many moments of struggle, but because the two partners relied on each other, they always got the job done. Riggs, the typical “loose cannon”, had to really prove he could be a dependable partner, and Murtaugh’s trust was repaid.

Similar to Riggs's transformation, we’ve seen the tight end position in the NFL evolve to become more than just a reliable blocker and big man to protect the quarterback. The tight end has now become a receiving security blanket for quarterbacks, a reliable target for (especially young) passers to utilize as a size/speed mismatch against a defense. The two-tight end set adds an extra one of these giant receivers to the field, so it could be assumed that this creates even more reliability and value in the offense and for the quarterback, right? This is the question we will explore today.

A Little Help From My Friends

I released a previous article detailing the effect of the two tight end set, also known as “12 personnel”, on the value of the tight end position itself. You can read that article here. Today, though, the interest is in what these outsized playmakers do to help their quarterbacks and the rest of their offense as a whole.

To do this, I established a baseline definition for a “starting” tight end by gathering all tight ends who played on 50% or more of their team’s offensive snaps in any given season in the last five years – between 2009 and 2013. I then separated those who had a teammate also in on 50% or more of their team’s offensive snaps and used this group of pairs as our “12 personnel” pool; the other group was our standard set control group, with only one “starting” tight end per team. All in all, of the 160 team seasons played between 2009 and 2013 (32 teams multiplied by five years), there were only 25 instances of a team heavily utilizing two tight ends in any given season.

After this, I simply charted the corresponding quarterback and total offense seasons with these and compared them to the seasons for quarterbacks and offenses that did not utilize the two tight end set. Between these two groups, I averaged and explored some of our key numberFire metrics, including our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP is a measure of how much a player or team advances their chances of scoring due to any given play on any given drive. For instance, when a quarterback makes a pass that raises his team’s expected points on that drive from 1 to 3, then that two-point difference is credited to his NEP score. Specifically, this type of NEP is called Passing NEP – NEP accumulated on any drop backs by the quarterback – and we will use it to examine the value of our quarterbacks in different offensive schemes. For more on NEP, check out our glossary here.

“Brady’s Bunch”

Before we get specifically to our signal-callers, let’s examine the effect of the two tight end set on offensive value as a whole. As I stated before, there were 25 team seasons in the last five years that used a tight end-heavy formation; the team that used it the most? None other than the New England Patriots, who have four appearances on our list. The table below shows the averages of 12 personnel and standard set offenses in comparison with each other, and then the difference between the two. Adjusted NEP is total offensive NEP adjusted for the strength of opponent, and Adjusted NEP per play is a metric that helps show how efficient an offense is on each play.

Offensive SchemeAdj. NEPAdj. Passing NEPAdj. NEP per PlayAdj. Passing NEP per Play
12 Personnel58.5158.020.050.10
12 Advantage +39.28+32.77+0.04+0.08

This data shows that offenses featuring the two-tight end set have far outstripped standard set offenses over the past five years in both terms of total value and efficiency. It would be one thing to see the average 12 personnel system score a few more points per year than standard offenses, but almost five touchdowns’ worth in simply the passing game alone? An advantage of 0.08 Passing NEP per play is also a ridiculous gap in efficiency.

It has to be noted that the two-tight end pool does include the near-historic 2010-2012 New England offensive numbers, but it also includes the historically atrocious 2010 Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears’ offenses. Consider, too, that these are not raw numbers, but opponent-adjusted and it makes it that much more impressive.

Linus and His Blanket

It only remains to look at the quarterbacks, the presumptive primary beneficiaries of the “dynamic duo” approach to the tight end position. These behemoths function as a quarterback's best friend, so will extra ones help even more? Again, we see 25 quarterback seasons that had a snap-proficient tight end tandem and compare their numbers to their non-bookended colleagues. The table below compares them via total drop backs, Passing NEP, Passing NEP per drop back, and Pass Success Rate (the percentage of passing plays that result in a positive gain of NEP).

Offensive SchemePassesPassing NEPPassing NEP per PlaySuccess Rate
12 Personnel55462.150.1147.83%
12 Advantage -7+34.18+0.06+1.85%

Yet again, we see that the only area in which a standard set quarterback has a category advantage is in drop backs. However, this is such a small difference over the course of the season that it can be considered negligible, and an increase in drop backs actually hints at a lesser efficiency in their offensive scheme. We see reinforced that, not just the offense, but the quarterback with two tight ends has nearly a five-touchdown advantage in Passing NEP over one without, as well as a 0.06 NEP per drop back efficiency advantage. The Success Rate’s difference is also fairly negligible, though one should note that the two tight end quarterbacks do have a slightly higher rate.

Even when we remove Tom Brady’s historic, top-five of all-time Passing NEP seasons for the New England Patriots from 2010-2012, shockingly the average two tight end quarterback still has a 12.06 Passing NEP advantage over the standard set, and their average efficiency in Pass NEP per drop back remains 0.03 over the standard set. This seems to enforce that the trend of proficient and efficient offenses featuring two tight ends are not a coincidence, but a good indicator of value all around for an offense.

Seeing Double

We can see from the above that offenses and quarterbacks with two highly utilized tight ends have tended to be more valuable on the NFL playing field over the past five years. This may not be conclusive for the prowess of the two tight end set over a three-wide set or two-back system, but it certainly offers encouragement for those offenses that implement such a system. Whether the extra tight end is primarily a blocker – Delanie Walker in San Francisco in 2012 – and allows the primary tight end to roam more and catch – 2012’s Vernon Davis – or another mismatched receiving weapon, like Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez's dynamic, the data shows that there is a strong tendency for two-tight end sets to function at a higher efficiency than other offensive systems.

Perhaps this is the moral of our 12 personnel fable: a West Coast style offense featuring short passes to huge receiving options (read: New England, Houston) may not be nearly as flashy or fast-paced as a wide open air raid (read: Green Bay, New Orleans), but they are more efficient and rack up more value. Much like another famous pair, Aesop’s tortoise and hare, slow and steady may win the race when it comes to the new era of the tight end in the NFL.