Wednesday, 9 May 2018


Last night on Talksport2's Nat Coombs Show starring Gnat Coombs we were talking about Jason Witten's retirement and the Chargers' release of Antonio Gates, and I mentioned the following article which I wrote last August as a Carlson's GOAT (greatest of all time) column for issue 31 of Gridiron (and if you haven't yet subscribed to Gridiron, why not?).

I have left the article as it was written (with one change in the second 11), though of course now Witten is no longer active and he has 11 Pro Bowls to his name, while Gronk is still active (after much soap opera drama by the 'hot takes' bunch) and now has four first-team All Pro selections and five Pro Bowls to his credit, tied with Ditka and more than Mackey or Winslow. Dallas certainly was expecting Witten to return as a full-time player, while although I fully expect a team, probably a very good team, to pick up Gates, he will certainly be much more of a situational player.

Were I writing the piece now, after the 2017 season, I would probably move Witten at least into a tie with Gates at number nine. I realised that the arguments I made in favour of Tony Gonzalez at number one apply similarly to Witten--his longevity at high quality is so unusual for the position it argues in his favour. In fact, although I'm pretty well set on the top five, the next five or six are very much fungible in my mind: the higher peaks for more limited time are balanced off by extended quality. I noted too that when Witten caught his record 110 passes in a season, he was not the consensus All-Pro (that was Gronk), and averaged only 9.4 yards per catch. My feeling is that the top five guys, at their peaks, all had to be accounted for by defenses in ways that separated them from the pack. 


Tight end wasn't even recognised as a position until the Sixties; in 1961 the UPI and NEA all-pro teams chose their first TE (rookie Mike Ditka); the AP followed suit in '62 (Ron Kramer). The growing use of halfbacks as flankers (eg: Lennie Moore, Frank Gifford) meant one end stayed in the line; Vince Lombardi made Kramer, a 250 pound sometimes tackle, that guy on a permanent basis. The position called for a balance of blocking and pass-catching skills; in those early years athletic guys like Ditka, John Mackey, or Jackie Smith gained lots of yards on mis-matches. One beneficiary of the change was Pete Retzlaff, who came into the league as a halfback, became a flanker, then a split end, finally, as he slowed a little, moved in as a tight end. In four seasons, he was all-pro once, could have been twice, and went to the Pro Bowl three times. Rule changes that opened up the passing game in late 70s saw the explosion of Kellen Winslow, Ozzie Newsome and others, until Shannon Sharpe became a prototype for the receiver-first guys we see today.

Ranking tight ends was difficult. Blocking is a skill that is not quantified, where reputation often matters as much as success. Many times the TE with the best stats used to lose out with all-pro voters to someone who was perceived as a better blocker. Some great TE seasons were undervalued by all-pro voters because they came on lousy teams, as if the idea of your TE being your top receiver was a joke (see Bob Tucker 1972). I've tried to balance receiving and blocking, and factor in longevity. One thing that stands out is the demand of the position works against a lot of great seasons, but great tight ends often have long careers filled with seasons less than their peak. There are a number of great TEs whose best seasons always seemed to come when someone else was having a better one (Ozzie Newsome). Finally, I've listed the number of first team all-pro selections and Pro Bowls for each guy. Take them with a grain of salt. There were multiple all-pro teams for most of the history of the NFL; they didn't always agree, and although the AP team is the generally accepted one today, there are a couple of others. The Pro Bowl picks two tight ends from each conference, but is also less reliable every year as the event itself becomes an increasingly irrelevant circus. Note Tony Gonzalez' 14th Pro Bowl came as an alternate! So here's my pick of the position:

Runners-up: 21. Russ Francis (0/3) or Steve Jordan (0/6) 19 (tie) Jerry Smith (1/2) or Jay Novacek (1/4) 18. Bob Trumpy (1/4) 17. Mark Bavaro (2/2) 16. Ben Coates (2/5) 15. Fred Arbanas (3/5 AFL) 14. Keith Jackson (3/5) 13. Pete Retzlaff (1/3) 12. Todd Christensen (2/5) 11. Ozzie Newsome (1/3)

The countdown (active players in bold):
10. (tie) Charlie Sanders (3/7), Jason Witten (2/10): longevity at this position is unusual; most of the greats tend to have five Pro Bowls in their resumes. I thought Sanders' might have been lucky to be chosen in all three of the all-pro seasons, but there was a reason voters respected him, which was partly his blocking. Whitten became the record holder for most catches in a season for a TE with 103 in 2012.

9. Antonio Gates (3/8): Undrafted out of Kent State where he was a basketball player, Gates is the poster-boy for the match-up style pass game of the modern era. Became a decent blocker, and even now with his speed gone can post-up defenders in the end zone as well as anyone in the league.

8. Jackie Smith (0/5): Smith could easily have been first team all pro three times, especially in '68 and '69 (when he also rushed 12 times for 193 yards and 3 TDs). But he was viewed as more of a pass-catcher, and the Cardinals as pass-happy, in a still run-orented era. Forget his famous drop for Dallas; he never should have been playing for the Cowboys anyway.

7. Shannon Sharpe (4/8): The same skill set as Smith, but played in a system and era that encouraged those skills. A willing if not terribly effective blocker, not as good as Smith, but a huge mis-match problem for defenses.

6. Dave Casper (4/5): From '76 through '79 the best in the business, then joined on the Raiders by Ray Chester and Christensen. Ghost to the Post remains as good as Alley-Oop in the list of plays named for specific players.

5. Rob Gronkowski (3/4): Injury is all that is keeping Gronk from consideration for the top spot; he may be the best combination of blocker and receiver of anyone on the list, capable of handling defensive ends one on one, of beating defensive backs downfield, and with reach and hands up there with Gates or Gonzo.

4. John Mackey (3/5): Mackey was the TE on the NFL all-decade team of the 60s; then Mike Ditka replaced him when the NFL chose the 75th anniversary squad. At the time I made the case for Mackey, but looking closely at the all pro selections, I realised in 67 his selection could easily have gone to Jackie Smith or Jerry Smith; in 68 it should have gone to Jackie. He was a ferocious blocker with great speed and running ability; injuries curtailed his career.

3. Mike Ditka (4/5): If you want to call him and Mackey a tie I'd be happy. Ditka's rookie season, 1961, saw him catch an unheard of 56 passes for 1076 yards and 12 touchdowns. He lost the AP all-pro to Kramer in 62 but got UPI's and was clearly better. He wore down as well, but hung on as a blocker with Dallas. Like Mackey, absolutely ferocious after the catch, and teams didn't have what we now call strong safeties in those first years.

2. Kellen Winslow (3/5): Gronk before there was Gronk, though he wasn't the in-line blocker Gronk is. 1980 was his second season, but first as starter and like Ditka in '61 his line 89/1,290/9 revolutionized the game, recognizing the changes in coverage rules made him a match-up nightmare. He had another 1,000 yard season in '82 as did Newsome (1,002) and Joe Senser (1,004), while Dan Ross racked up 910. Winslow simply wore down after nine seasons, but his epic performance against Miami in the 1981 playoffs, catching 13/166 and blocking a field goal to prevent the Dolphins winning, is one of the greatest individual games ever.


When you compare players, you have to judge peak performance and career performance. You might make an argument for Winslow, or maybe Ditka, or even Casper at their peaks, but nobody did it so well for so many seasons as Gonzo. You can judge tight ends by the receiving skills, their running skill, their blocking. You'll see Gonzalez referred to as another basketball player converted to tight end, but that's wrong. He was a football player too. As a high schooler he shared the Orange County athlete of the year award with some golfer named Tiger Woods, and for three years at Cal-Berkeley he played football first and then switched to basketball. He was an All-American tight end as a junior, when he came out for the NFL draft; 6-6 power forwards averaging 7 points per game weren't high on the NBA's want list anyway. It took the Chiefs three seasons before they focused on Gonzalez' skills: in his fourth season he registered the first of his four 1,000 yard seasons; Christensen, Winslow and Sharpe had three each.

But what stands out about Gonzalez' career is that longevity. 17 seasons. No major injuries at a position where the wear and tear of blocking, combined with the catching over the middle, invites pain. The consistency of 14 Pro Bowls. The success of moving to Atlanta, where he was unlucky enough to enjoy only one complete season of Julio Jones distracting defenses away from him. Detractors will point to his only adequate blocking, to a perceived lack of breakaway speed; he's more like Gates than Gronk in that sense. They'll point to a lack of a Super Bowl ring, but frankly, that's not a reflection of his play. It's almost impossible to conceive of another career like Gonzalez's. You may prefer a different guy if you're choosing for just one game, but over a career, there's no doubt who ranks number one.

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