Ken Dilger's outstanding hands allow him to make catches in traffic and in unusual positions
In his first regular season appearance for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a first-quarter relief job against the New Orleans Saints, Brian Griese led the team to its first victory of the 2004 season. The biggest play in Griese's eye-opening, 16-of-19 performance: With 12 minutes remaining in the third quarter, he completed a 45-yard pass down the seam to a wide-open pass-catcher for what would prove to be the game-winning touchdown.
This man streaking downfield was neither speedster Joey Galloway (out with an injury at the time) nor exciting rookie Michael Clayton. It was not big-play Joe Jurevicius or running back Michael Pittman, an outstanding route-runner.
The player streaking down the right hash marks on that play was tight end Ken Dilger. That's the 6-5, 250-pound, rugged-blocking Ken Dilger, who in addition to being a surprising big-play threat is quietly having a stellar all-around 2004 season.
The Bucs' tight end position has been hit hard by injuries this season, with Rickey Dudley and Will Heller both landing on injured reserve and Dave Moore fighting an ankle injury. Even Dilger has had to deal with bruised ribs in recent weeks. But the 10th-year veteran has overcome his share of bumps and bruises to turn in the best season, statistically speaking, of the Buccaneer portion of his career.
Through 13 games, Dilger's 34 catches for 314 yards are second and third on the team in those respective statistical categories. Dilger has also found the end zone three times through the air, which ties him for second most on the Buccaneers. Before 2004, his best season as a Buc was '02, when he caught 34 passes for 329 yards and two scores. His best season overall was in 1995, when he caught 42 passes for 635 yards and four touchdowns with the Indianapolis Colts. With three games to play, Dilger is on pace for 42 receptions, 386 yards and four touchdowns.
Dilger attributes much of his success this season to being relatively healthy, at least for most of the year. Being able to practice and play on a regular basis has allowed him to develop chemistry with Griese, something that is nearly impossible to do when faced with a nagging injury.
"Being healthy this year has been very important," said Dilger. "Last year I was kind of banged up a little bit, but this year I've stayed healthy and proved to the quarterbacks that I'm a viable target."
Dilger has always had outstanding hands, the kind that let him catch the ball in traffic and in from a variety of angles. He's also good at finding holes in the zone, an important skill for a tight end who, despite his handful of long plays this year, is more likely to work the middle of the field. He's smart and runs routes well, which makes him a good fit in Head Coach Jon Gruden's offense.
Dilger was originally released in a cap-related move then later re-signed, to the Bucs' delight. He has moved seamlessly into his third straight year as the team's starter. That's a good thing, because the Bucs would be at a disadvantage in today's NFL if they were not getting production out of the tight end spot.
This might even be the Golden Age for tight ends. It wasn't long ago that popular opinion held that the position was becoming obsolete. Now tight ends like Antonio Gates, Jeremy Shockey, Tony Gonzalez, Alge Crumpler and Eric Johnson are being featured in offenses and are among the league's reception leaders. The Bucs spread the ball around quite a bit in the passing game and have a primary target in Clayton, but Dilger is nonetheless a valuable commodity in Gruden's attack.
"This offense is very much suited around tight ends, running and receiving," said Gruden. "We're going to have to lean on those tight ends, and that's what we're out here practicing."
Gruden and the Buccaneer offense leaned on Dilger two months ago in New Orleans, so look for them to do more of the same this week when the teams match up again. Plus, as the consummate veteran, he will play a big role in getting rookie Nate Lawrie prepared for his first regular season game.
When a team like the Buccaneers is preparing to make one final push towards the playoffs, leaders like Dilger are essential to the process. He knows that the best way to approach the Buccaneers' current situation is to focus solely on what they can do to win the next game. Ultimately, it all comes down to executing in key situations.
"It feels good being 5-8 and still having a chance," said Dilger. "But I think the only team we have to worry about is ourselves and what we do on offense. We haven't really executed so well in certain situations, so hopefully when it is time to execute we can go ahead and do it."
Dilger has accomplished a lot during his time in the NFL. He's been an AP All-Pro, been named to the Pro Bowl and won a Super Bowl. To a certain degree, sustaining such a lengthy career in an ultra-competitive league is an accomplishment in and of itself. He takes pride in the hard work that it has taken to maintain an integral role in the Buccaneers' offense.
"It's taken a lot of hard work to play this long in this league," said Dilger. "Injuries always play a key role, and I've been fortunate enough to stay pretty much injury-free throughout my career. Some bumps and bruises have caused me to miss some games along the way, but I think that conditioning and working hard has really paid off."