More than 103 million people watched Super Bowl LII last February, and if they remember any one play from that game, it has to be the fourth-down snap right before halftime that turned Venice High School graduate Trey Burton into a star. With 38 seconds to go and Burton’s Philadelphia Eagles clinging to a 15-12 lead over the New England Patriots, Burton, a tight end, lined up for a play the Eagles dubbed “Philly special.” When the ball was snapped, Burton sprinted to his right, took a handoff and lofted a pass from the 11-yard line to quarterback Nick Foles, wide open in the flat. Touchdown. The Eagles took a 22-12 lead into halftime and held on to win 41-33.
"We had it ready for all the playoff games," Burton says, "but we were just waiting for the right situation to call it: inside the 10-yard line and close to the left hash mark. It's tough to cover."
The play catapulted Burton from a third-string tight end who only lined up on a quarter of his team’s offensive snaps to a consistent starter this season for the Chicago Bears, with whom he signed a four-year, $32 million contract last March. During the 2017 regular season leading up to the Eagles’ Super Bowl, Burton recorded just 23 catches for 248 yards and five touchdowns. This season, Burton blew past those numbers, racking up 54 catches (tied for 10th in the league among tight ends), 569 receiving yards and six touchdowns (tied for fourth in the league among tight ends). The Bears finished the season 12-4 and won the NFC North, setting up a playoff date against Burton's old team, the Eagles, on Sunday.
Burton’s iconic Super Bowl play and his increase in playing time are emblematic of the changing style of play in the National Football League. Even at 6-foot, 3-inches tall and 235 pounds, Burton is one of the league’s smaller tight ends, built for the pass-happy offenses currently in vogue. “Football is evolving,” Burton says. “They want guys who can create mismatches.” While tight ends in previous generations were hulks who spent a large portion of snaps blocking for running backs, Burton is a quicker, more nimble pass-catcher, who can evade slower linebackers and safeties.
And, as last year’s Super Bowl shows, he has the arm strength and accuracy to pull off trick passes when necessary. That comes from a lifetime of shifting around the football field. When Burton was recruited to play at the University of Florida, he was initially slotted to play quarterback, but then became a running back and a wide receiver before moving to tight end for good in the NFL. Burton credits his early years as a quarterback for his adaptability. “When I played quarterback, I had to learn the whole offense,” Burton says, “and once you learn the game from that standpoint, you can plug yourself in at different positions.”
That Swiss Army knife-like versatility makes him an ideal player for a league that today prizes offensive players who can do it all—run, catch and pass. Burton is hoping to replicate his success in last year’s Super Bowl this year. “It’s the game ever since you’re a child,” Burton says. “It’s something you always dream about.” Last year, at least, the dream came true.