ORCHARD PARK — At 63 years old, Pete Metzelaars no longer has the red mullet that flowed from underneath his helmet 30 years ago. But he still has a Buffalo Bills franchise record that hasn’t been broken.
Metzelaars caught 68 passes in 1993, and for three decades, it has lasted as Buffalo’s franchise record for receptions by a tight end in a season. In fact, no tight end had come within 10 catches of the mark prior to this season.
But now that record is hanging by a thread.
It took Metzelaars 11 NFL seasons to set his record at 33 years old. Yet, Bills tight end Dalton Kincaid, a player 29 years his junior, needs just three catches to break Metzelaars’ record in his rookie season, one that began with general manager Brandon Beane making a polarizing decision to trade up to draft him in the first round.
Kincaid’s first NFL season has been a mix of typical rookie struggles, injuries and success. Immediately inserted as a featured player in the offense, Kincaid had just 118 yards on 6.9 yards per catch as the Bills worked out the kinks of their new two-tight end offense during the first five games.
But when tight end Dawson Knox went down with a wrist injury and Kincaid returned from a one-game absence due to a concussion in Week 6, Kincaid’s role increased. Kincaid made at least five receptions in seven consecutive games.
Shoulder and finger injuries limited practice time and Kincaid made one catch over two games against the Cowboys and Chargers, but after a four-catch, 87-yard outing against the Patriots, Kincaid has 66 receptions — a rookie franchise record — that ranks eighth among NFL tight ends.
“I think it’s just experience, speed of the game, physicality of the game,” Kincaid said in regards to adjusting to the NFL. “But experience just kind of slows all that down. So just getting those reps and getting out there definitely helped.”
Injuries aside, Metzelaars’ transition to the NFL wasn’t as smooth. At 6-foot-7, he played for an undefeated football team, led Wabash (Michigan) to the Division III men’s basketball championship and was named the most outstanding player in the 1982 title game.
Metzelaars was a third-round pick of the Seahawks, but made just 27 catches in three seasons before being traded to the Bills in 1985. He made 110 catches between 1986-1988, but he played with torn knee cartilage in 1988 as Buffalo went from bottom-feeders to the AFC championship game.
But it took three seasons for Metzelaars to recover from surgery after the season and again during training camp in 1989. At the same time, Keith McKeller emerged in the form of today’s modern tight end and his athleticism made him the namesake of the K-Gun offense that made the Bills one of the top offenses in the league.
McKeller made 98 catches for 1,239 yards and 10 touchdowns from 1989-1991 and Metzelaars couldn’t get his job back.
“I was frustrated in the middle of it,” said Metzelaars, who is now coaching high school football in Charlotte. “I’m kind of like, ‘Wait a minute, I just had a great year and stuff,’ and you kind of overlook the injuries and whether it was slowing you down or not, or whether how much it affects you and stuff. You just think I’m still the same player and I can still do the same things. And a lot of times, you really can’t.”
Just as Metzelaars was getting healthy, though, injuries began to plague McKeller and he played 19 games in 1992 and 1993 before exiting the league. Still confident in his ability, Metzelaars resumed his role as a complementary weapon for Jim Kelly, making 30 catches in 1992.
Bill Brooks replaced Hall of Famer James Lofton as Buffalo’s No. 2 receiver in 1993 and Andre Reed was hampered by a hamstring injury for most of the season. With just 18 receptions in the first seven games, it seemed as if Metzelaars was just a small piece of the offense.
And then he made 10 catches for 74 yards and a touchdown reception in the fourth quarter to help the Bills overcome a 10-point deficit to beat the Patriots 13-10. He ended up making 35 catches for 335 yards over the last six games to lead the team in receptions on the year.
He caught the game-winning touchdown pass from Jim Kelly in the fourth quarter to beat the Giants in Week 4 and caught the team’s lone touchdown from Frank Reich, who entered in relief of Kelly in the fourth quarter of a 10-7 win over the Eagles in Week 15.
Metzelaars joked that the Bills lost to the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXVIII because they were winning when he left the game with injury before halftime and Buffalo didn’t score a point in the second half of a 30-13 loss.
“I just kept coming to work,” said Metzelaars, who still holds the Bills all-time records for catches (302), yards (2,921) and touchdowns (25). “It’s still a kid’s game and I still enjoyed going to work and playing football and running routes and having fun and all that kind of stuff. So I just hopefully kept that positive attitude, kept showing up and kept going to work. And eventually, the pendulum swung back to me and I got the opportunity.”
Kincaid’s emergence ironically also came at the expense of an injury and he credits Knox with helping him while on injured reserve. At the same time, No. 3 tight end Quintin Morris was also battling an ankle injury, so the Bills shifted to a one-tight end set in most games, which helped feature Kincaid more frequently.
With Knox out for five games, Kincaid became quarterback Josh Allen’s safety net. From Week 7 to Week 14, Kincaid led the Bills in receptions (44) and yards (377) before injuries, Knox’s return and a shift to a more run-focused offense limited his snaps a bit.
“With (Knox) being out, he definitely still was around and just kind of was more vocal than anything,” Kincaid said. “He’s pitching tips and reminders, just helping wherever he could. That time and experience has been super helpful.”
Kincaid and Metzelaars don’t have much in common outside of their basketball backgrounds — Kincaid was primarily a basketball player before his senior season in high school — as Kincaid is three inches shorter and 15 pounds lighter and doesn’t quite have to worry about the knockout shots defenders were allowed to take on receivers when Metzelaars played during the 1980s and 1990s.
But both have proven reliable options over the middle. Metzelaars says Kincaid is a better downfield threat than he was, and despite averaging 8.9 yards per catch this season, Kincaid finally showed it with his 51-yard catch-and-run against the Patriots Sunday.
Kincaid wasn’t aware he was nearing Metzelaars’ record when approached by the Gazette and Metzelaars is pulling for him to break the record. Well, sort of.
“I’m cheering for him to break my record a little bit,” Metzelaars quipped. “Mostly I’m hoping they go down (to Miami) and treat the old Joe Robbie Stadium like it’s Rich Stadium South like we used to call it when we were playing.”
NOTES: Bills C Mitch Morse missed Friday’s practice with an illness and is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Dolphins. … WR Stefon Diggs received veteran rest, while S Damar Hamlin (shoulder) was limited. … QB Josh Allen (neck/finger) was a full participant for the third day in a row.