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New breed of tight ends surfacing

Flying back and forth between playoff games the past two weeks, I had a chance to watch "Moneyball," the Brad Pitt produced story of Billy Beane during his time with the Oakland Athletics.

Though baseball purists point out how the storyline was adjusted to build interest in the movie, I still was fascinated to see how a baseball movie centered on stats can be a success. Statistical scouting has no doubt changed the game of baseball, but to six Oscar nominations? That's remarkable.

While football statistical analysis hasn't changed the game as much as it did baseball, I do contend it's speeding up the understanding of trends. Look at this year's Super Bowl. We all know the NFL has become a quarterback-driven league, but to have the 27th-ranked defense (the New York Giants) and the 31st-ranked defense (the New England Patriots) in the final continues to show the trends of the game.

The days of good defense and running the football aren't dead, but those assets are minimized. What's also telling from the divisional and championship rounds is that it's not all about the quarterback. Despite converting one of 13 third downs, Alex Smith was only a couple plays from taking the 49ers to the Super Bowl with a running team. Joe Flacco isn't the equal of Tom Brady as a quarterback, but his throw to Lee Evans could have put the Ravens in the Super Bowl.

The great part of statistical analysis is keeping up with the changes in the game. Old philosophies die fast. In "Moneyball," you needed 814 runs scored and to allow in the mid-600s to be successful. But that was in the steroid era. Now, scoring has dropped. Athleticism and pitching are being stressed. It's a different game than in 2002.

The NFL is changing rapidly, too. In 2010, the slot receiver became a vital part of offenses. This season, you struggled to win unless you had a great pass-catching tight end to thrive and survive. To win this season, your quarterback didn't have to be great but he had to be able to execute fourth-quarter scoring drives. Smith and Flacco could do that.

With four of the last six conference championship games boasting seven-point or fewer margins heading into the fourth quarter, it shows that teams can't rely on just one old trend to win. One of the trends building is for defenses to find taller cornerbacks who can play press coverage to neutralize the mismatches created by recent offensive successes.

To win in the NFL now, you need scoring. But defense will make a comeback and the offensive coaches will have to adjust. The Ravens and 49ers, the No. 3 and No. 4 defenses, respectively, were only a play or two away from meeting in the Super Bowl.

From the inbox

Q: John, we know Tom Brady is a first ballot HOF'er. But if the Pats win the SB, does that erase any doubt that Brady is the greatest QB of all time? He will tie for first all-time in SB appearances (John Elway, 5) and wins (Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, 4). He also holds the single-season record for TDs, and his WR (Randy Moss) and TE (Gronkowski) set respective positional season records. If he plays the four to five more seasons he wants, he will undoubtedly be top 5 in TDs, yards and wins. No-brainer right?

Dave in Maple Shade, N.J.

A: Because ifs are involved it's not a no-brainer. What if he doesn't win this Super Bowl? What if he doesn't have four or five more seasons? What's great about sports is raising arguments about players in the middle of their careers and comparing them to retired players whose resumes are completed. Winning a fourth Super Bowl could leave Brady's current body of work ahead of Bradshaw and maybe Elway. It's still hard to jump ahead of Montana, but he does have five more great seasons, so that argument can be made. I'd say let the ride come to a complete stop before making the determination, but I'd be naïve to think the discussion can't be raised. You're on the right path, but I wouldn't call it a no-brainer.

Q: In the wake of the recent success of Vernon Davis, Gronk and Aaron Hernandez, among other tight ends in the NFL, will we see the emergence of "hybrid" defensive backs with the specific purpose of covering tight ends?

Matt in London

A: Great question. The need for bigger defensive backs is essential to cover these tight ends. You noticed during the AFC title game that the Ravens used 6-fot-2 Jimmy Smith, a cornerback, to contain the Pats' tight ends. The Seahawks hit it big with 6-4 Brandon Browner, who just went to the Pro Bowl. You can't sit back in a zone defense and think you can control tight ends, because quarterbacks will destroy those styles of defenses. What you might see is teams developing tall running backs with speed and tall receivers with speed to try to see if they can become cornerbacks or safeties to match up against the big receivers and tight ends. Look at what the Seahawks did with Richard Sherman, who was an offensive player at Stanford for a good portion of his career and ended up being a starting corner as a rookie in the NFL.

Q: What do you think are the most probable landing spots for Matt Flynn? I could see the Redskins, Seahawks and Dolphins making a play for him.

Alex in Spokane, Wash.

A: The other team could be the Cleveland Browns. You figure that the Browns, Redskins or Dolphins could maneuver to get Robert Griffin III in some kind of a trade, so that would take one team off the Flynn market. The Seahawks, drafting either No. 11 or No. 12, don't have much of a chance of jumping ahead of the other three teams to get Griffin, so they would need to concentrate on Flynn. Don't underestimate Brandon Weeden being in the mix. The Oklahoma State quarterback has looked pretty good in Senior Bowl workouts. Though he might be a low first- or a second-round value, his stock might be rising.

Q: As a lifetime Miami Dolphins fan and a UTK alumnus, I am elated by the mere prospect of Peyton Manning wearing a bottlecap on his helmet. I'm certain No. 18 has the same fevered passion to play as he always has, but is he [healthy] enough for an entire NFL season? Are the Colts letting him go, and if they are is Miami an attractive place for him?

Priest in Boston

A: First of all, we all have to see if he's going to be able to play football again. That's a big if. If the Colts let him go, there will be a lot of doubt. I'm starting to wonder if we will ever see him on the field again. Though I have been optimistic, the nerve in his neck just isn't regenerating fast enough. A healthy Manning would turn any team into a 10- or 11-game winner along with exciting fans. I believe Washington and the New York Jets would be more aggressive than the Dolphins in getting him, but the Dolphins need a marquee name to sell tickets. Manning could do that. Still, if the Colts let him go, which they could, you have to wonder if Manning can be Manning again.

Q: The Redskins seem to have a real issue with height at the wide receiver position. Do you think it would be better for them to continue to try as they have done in the past to draft a young, big receiver or try to drop the money and grab a free agent like Dwayne Bowe or Vincent Jackson?

Kevin in Washington, D.C.

A: I think they have to do something in free agency because that first-round choice needs to be used to help the quarterback position. Getting a receiver without making the upgrade at wide receiver would keep the team where it is now -- at the four-, five- or six-win level. The Redskins have plenty of holes on this team and they can't fix them all in a year. But quarterback is the position they need to fix first. They need a franchise quarterback. The problem facing them in free agency is that receivers such as Bowe, Jackson and others could be franchised and eventually unavailable.

Q: Hey John, I'm just curious … since Bruce Arians left the Steelers, names like Todd Haley and Jim Caldwell are being used a lot. Maybe you know why Hue Jackson isn't mentioned at all. I mean, he took Darren McFadden from a potential bust and turned him into a wrecking machine in Oakland. And even when RunDMC was out, the offensive line and Michael Bush did a hell of a job. I'm pretty sure the Rooneys want to revive that run game, and the first thing Hue would do is go get them the fullback that we all want them to have. What do you think?

Alex in California

A:Jackson would be a good play-calling addition to any staff, but that doesn't seem to be the way Mike Tomlin wants to go with his staff. There is a better chance they will promote from within. This will be an interesting season for the Steelers. They have to let go of a lot of aging veterans to fit under the salary cap. They also know that Ben Roethlisberger wants to stay in a passing-style offense and is upset he lost Arians. The Steelers' offense of the past couple of years really didn't have a fullback. If they move to a fullback-oriented offense, Big Ben might not be totally on board.

Q: John, I feel bad for the Ravens, it was their second AFC Championship Game defeat in the last four years. This is a team that always seems to get there, but falls short by a couple hairs. What do you feel their biggest offseason needs are going into the draft? I feel like they need a big-time WR with speed that can stretch defenses and get separation, because they had problems with that all year. Anquan Boldin is good, but he's not a burner. What do you think about finding the eventual replacements for Ray Lewis and Ed Reed?

Joe in Washington, D.C.

A: Too bad the Evans trade didn't solve the problem. Torrey Smith has the speed you're talking about, but his game isn't refined enough to beat the top corners in man coverage. He has the talent to be the receiver with great separation but he will need a lot of coaching during the offseason. Neglected in the conversation are the problems on the offensive line. The line was inconsistent all season. Despite having two Pro Bowl guards, the line struggled in the middle and it was inconsistent at tackle. They've made progress at corner. They do need another good, young linebacker. A young, playmaking safety would help. And yes, they probably need another receiver who can separate. By the way, I expect Cam Cameron to return as offensive coordinator.

Q: Jay Cutler has received a lot of praise for his talent, even so much as the Bears giving up some nice draft picks to get him. I was wondering why he's received all of this praise when he's really done nothing in the playoffs, and taking into account that his big year (statistically) was really a disappointment in terms of his team. Doesn't he need to do something now, as talent only takes you so far, e.g. Bo Jackson?

Corey in Lakewood

A: First off, he hasn't come close to the statistics he had in Denver before the trade. He was a 4,526-yard thrower in his final years with the Broncos. His numbers have gone down in each of his three seasons with the Bears, and his scoring has been average at best. He's a great talent. He has also proven he can win when he's healthy and was healthy until this past season. He needs to get back to the 4,000-yard level to gain more respect.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter
@ClaytonESPN