In 2009, in his last 16-game season with the Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Clark caught 100 passes for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns, making him just the second tight end in NFL history to hit double digits in receptions in a single season.
That same season, Tony Gonzalez was in his first season with the Atlanta Falcons after building a Hall of Fame resume over a dozen seasons in Kansas City. Gonzalez, of course, was the first NFL tight end to hit 100 receptions in a season, having caught 102 in 2004. Coming off two straight 1,000-yard campaigns for the Chiefs, Gonzalez kept right on rolling in Atlanta with 83 grabs for 867 yards and six touchdowns.
For Clark, the next two seasons were marred by injuries and he caught a total of 71 passes in 2010-11 before the Colts initiated a massive roster turnover that also saw the departure of QB Peyton Manning. Gonzalez remained very productive during those two years but at 36 entering this season has dealt with the retirement question for years. In fact, he has stated that he is likely to hang up the cleats after this season.
But time seems to be standing still for two of the most prolific tight ends of the last generation. Gonzalez, who is the first tight end in NFL history with 100 touchdown catches, is second only to Dallas’ Jason Witten at the position in receptions this year, with 64. Clark doesn’t have that level of production his first year with a new team, but over the last five games he has suddenly emerged as an important part of the offense. In that span, he has 18 catches for 174 yards and three touchdowns.
The Buccaneers’ defense obviously has to prepare itself for a significant challenge this week in facing Gonzalez. Atlanta Head Coach Mike Smith, who obviously knows a valuable tight end when he sees one, believes that Clark is also still a very real threat that must be accounted for at the tight end position.
“I see a very efficient player at the tight end position,” said Smith. “The thing about Dallas, having had to deal with him a couple other times, he creates matchup issues. He can align in-line – what I mean by in-line is right next to the offensive tackle – but he’s also a guy that can be flexed out and can create matchup issues for safeties and linebackers. These last four games, you’ve really seen his production spike up in their offense. I think Coach [Mike] Sullivan’s doing a great job of distributing the ball to their playmakers.”
Last Sunday, the Bucs went to Clark on several occasions when they absolutely had to make a play in Carolina. He made two sliding catches in traffic to keep a fourth-quarter field goal drive alive during Tampa Bay’s amazing six-minute comeback, then scored the game-winning points in overtime on a 15-yard catch. Clark was indeed a matchup problem for the Panthers on that final play, as he ran an out on LB Thomas Davis, then suddenly turned it up to the end zone and left Davis dead in his tracks. Clark still had to make a spinning catch and tap his toes for the score, but he had no defender around him to disrupt the pass.
Seeing Clark make plays like that has confirmed what Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano believed this spring, when the team released Kellen Winslow and brought in Clark despite some whispers that the long-time Colt had “nothing left in the tank.”
“He’s got a lot left in his tank,” said Schiano. “This guy is hungry and a driven football player and a really good role model on our football team. We knew we were getting that because [Quarterbacks Coach] Ron [Turner] had been with him at Indy so we had some insider information there with Ron so that helped a lot, knowing more gave us an advantage.”
It would have seemed to be a signing worth the risk simply based on Clark’s career numbers. He’s closing in on 500 catches and 50 touchdowns and has more than 5,000 yards. He’s also the leading postseason pass-catcher in league history among tight ends. But Clark didn’t come to Tampa expecting that track record to buy him any special treatment. In fact, despite his very recognizable name in NFL circles, he was convinced he had to – as the saying goes – “prove himself all over again.”
“That’s a great description, because no one here really cares what you’ve done or where you’ve been,” said Clark. “You’re here to help your new team and that’s what you have to do.”