Saturday, January 4, 2014

Road to Canton Closed to Tight Ends

By Dan Trammel
@HighwayToHall

“There is no such thing as a ‘future’ Hall of Famer at tight end…It’s difficult for any tight end to gain admittance to Canton no matter how many passes he catches.”[1]

Eight tight ends are currently enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame. And only one tight end appeared on the Preliminary List for the Class of 2014 (Mark Bavaro). One of the reasons there are so few tight ends represented in Canton is due to the relatively newness of the position. Another reason is the difficulty in evaluating the position. With receiving numbers, they are unfairly compared to wide receivers.

“The tight end has to be a pass receiver-blocker combination, and he can expect contact on every play. Most of his routes are to the inside…where violent experiences are the reward…The attrition rate on tight ends is high. They usually don’t last too long, or if they do, their years of peak performances are limited.”[2]


In 1978, the NFL added a new official (the side judge) whose responsibility, in part, was to limit the assault on tight ends. As Dave Casper explained it, “[I]n the past, if it was third and eight and the linebacker had coverage on me, he could wait for me to move three or four yards and just tackle me…The odds were for it because he’d get caught maybe once out of 10 times.”[3]

The tight end position developed in the 1950s. “[T]he first player who clearly defined what a tight end could do was Ron Kramer of the 1959 Packers, a 6’3”, 230-pound receiver who was also a devastating blocker.”[4]

“The tight end’s potential as a pass receiver became increasingly apparent through the exploits of Mike Ditka of the Bears, John Mackey of the Colts and Billy Cannon of the Raiders, each of whom made a significant contribution to the game and the position during the ‘60s.”[5]

At the time of the NFL-AFL Merger, the three tight ends with the most receiving yards were Mike Ditka (5,156), Jackie Smith (5,115), and John Mackey (4,548). These three men are in the Hall of Fame. The only other tight ends enshrined in Canton are the members of the All-Decade Teams of the 1970s (Dave Casper and Charlie Sanders), 1980s (Kellen Winslow and Ozzie Newsome), and 1990s (Shannon Sharpe), with only Ben Coates (2nd team of the 1990s) absent.


Is there room for more tight ends? Certainly. But without the argument that “so-and-so is a member of the All-Decade Team,” it becomes more difficult. (For the record, the members of the All-Decade Team of the 2000s are Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates). How do you separate the remaining players? Receptions? Receiving Yards? Touchdowns? Super Bowl rings? Pro Bowls? Reputation? For the purposes of this article, we are going to limit our discussion to the 58 men who have been named to 2 or more Pro Bowls. The list is as follows:

 
Billy Joe Dupree
Jim R. Mitchell
 
 

At first glance, these men appear to be the cream of the crop. However, as always, feel free to submit your nominations of players who should be included for one reason or another.

Now, 58 players are too many to evaluate. So first, let’s eliminate those players who have not achieved the minimum receiving numbers established by the 8 tight ends currently in the Hall of Fame. After all, it is going to be extremely difficult to make an argument for a player that has fewer catches, yards, etc. than all tight ends in the Hall and failed to receive recognition as one of the top 2 players at his position during a decade.

Name
Receptions
Receiving Yards
Touchdowns
Dave Casper
302
4169
48
Mike Ditka
427
5812
43
John Mackey
331
5236
38
Ozzie Newsome
662
7980
47
Charlie Sanders
336
4817
31
Shannon Sharpe
815
10060
62
Jackie Smith
480
7918
40
Kellen Winslow
541
6741
45

It looks like our magic numbers for a tight end are 300/4000/30. So who do we lose?

Fewer than 300 catches
Fewer than 4000 yards
Fewer than 30 touchdowns
Bob Trumpy
Doug Cosbie
Frank Wycheck
Jim Gibbons
Billy Cannon
Steve Jordan
Milt Morin
Billy Joe Dupree
Jim R. Mitchell
Billy Joe Dupree
Jim Gibbons
David Hill
Bubba Franks
Fred Arbanas
Charle Young
Marv Cook
Alvin Reed
Dave Kocourek
Dave Kocourek
Willie Frazier
Ted Kwalick
Billy Cannon
Ted Kwalick
Jim Gibbons
Chad Lewis
Bubba Franks
Chad Lewis
Alvin Reed
Chad Lewis
Jacque MacKinnon
Willie Frazier
Mark Chmura
Mark Chmura
Fred Arbanas
Marv Cook
Milt Morin
Mark Chmura
Jacque MacKinnon
Alvin Reed
Ted Kwalick
Ferrell Edmunds
Junior Miller
Ferrell Edmunds
Paul Costa
Marv Cook
Junior Miller
Ernie Warlick
Ferrell Edmunds
Jacque MacKinnon
Junior Miller
Paul Costa
Paul Costa

Ernie Warlick
Ernie Warlick



In looking at the above list, I am going to make an executive decision and only drop the players who appear in two or more of the above columns. As such, we lose:


Jim Gibbons
Milt Morin
Billy Joe Dupree
Bubba Franks
Marv Cook
Dave Kocourek
Billy Cannon
Chad Lewis
Alvin Reed
Willie Frazier
Fred Arbanas
Mark Chmura
Ted Kwalick
Ferrell Edmunds
Junior Miller
Jacque MacKinnon
Paul Costa
Ernie Warlick

This may not have been the best decision, because we lose the top tight ends in AFL history, most notably Arbanas and Kocourek, but, as they fall under the purview of the Seniors’ Committee, we will evaluate their cases when and if they are nominated.




Unfortunately, there are still a lot of names left. What else can we do to eliminate some people? Well, we at the Highway to Hall do not like compilers, players who hang around a long time and thus have impressive career numbers, despite never having many, if any, stand out seasons. We think of them as the Harold Baines All-Stars (feel free to submit nominations for a football counterpart). In looking at our list of Hall of Fame tight ends, they each had at least 4 seasons with 40 or more receptions. With the understanding that the tight end position has changed, and more passes are being thrown in general, let’s look at the list of tight ends that have four or more seasons with 40+ catches.


Tony Gonazlez (16)
Owen Daniels (5)
Shannon Sharpe (11)
Chris Cooley (5)
Antonio Gates (10)
Eric Green (5)
Jason Witten (10)
Pete Holohan (5)
Jeremy Shockey (9)
Riley Odoms (5)
Frank Wycheck (8)
Desmond Clark (5)
Keith Jackson (7)
Freddie Jones (7)
Mickey Shuler (5)
Ozzie Newsome (7)
Jerry Smith (5)
Jackie Smith (7)
Mark Bavaro (4)
Bob Tucker (7)
Dave Casper (4)
Kellen Winslow (7)
Brent Celek (4)
Heath Miller (7)
Ben Coates (6)
Ken Dilger (4)
Paul Coffman (6)
Mike Ditka (4)
Todd Heap (6)
Brent Jones (6)
Dustin Keller (4)
Steve Jordan (6)
John Mackey (4)
Todd Christensen (6)
Randy McMichael (4)
Jay Novacek (6)
Zach Miller (4)
Wesley Walls (6)
Marcus Pollard (4)
Kellen Winslow Jr. (6)
Pete Retzlaff (4)
Greg Olsen (6)
Charlie Sanders (4)
Vernon Davis (6)
Tony Scheffler (4)
Alge Crumpler (5)

 

As we suspected, the list is definitely skewed towards more modern tight ends. Let’s look at one more list. Each of our Hall of Fame tight ends had at least 4 seasons with 500+ yards receiving. The others who can say that are as follows:

Tony Gonzalez (16)
Jay Novacek (5)
Shannon Sharpe (11)
Jerry Smith (5)
Antonio Gates (10)
Jason Witten (10)
Wesley Walls (5)
Keith Jackson (8)
Kellen Winslow Jr. (5)
Ozzie Newsome (8)
Jackie Smith (8)
Steve Jordan (7)
Marl Bavaro (4)
Riley Odoms (7)
Raymond Chester (4)
Jeremy Shockey (7)
Alge Crumpler (4)
Kellen Winslow (7)
Mike Ditka (4)
Jimmie Giles (4)
Todd Christensen (6)
Eric Green (4)
Ben Coates (6)
Rodney Holman (4)
Todd Heap (6)
Brent Jones (6)
Dave Casper (6)
Milt Morin (4)
Charlie Sanders (6)
Rich Caster (4)
Frank Wycheck (6)
Pete Retzlaff (4)
Paul Coffman (5)
Dan Ross (4)
Chris Cooley (5)
Mickey Shuler (4)
Aaron Thomas (4)
Russ Francis (5)
Bob Trumpy (4)
John Mackey (5)
Charle Young (4)

Of our remaining list, which tight ends did not achieve either feat?

Doug Cosbie
Jim R. Mitchell
David Hill
Okay, that is not a big help, but it does drop us to 29 names, most of whom were very popular players. One can make the argument that the remaining players, in addition to the 8 Hall of Famers, make up the list of the greatest tight ends in history. As such, let’s look at each player in more detail. The names are in alphabetical order so feel free to skip the ones in which you have no interest.

Mark Bavaro
For a period of time, Bavaro was considered the prototype for the tight end position, and the man many future tight ends and receivers would be measured against: Chris Smith, Derek Brown, Kyle Brady, Eric Green, Jeremy Shockey, Anthony Becht, Javon Walker, Michael Crabtree, Anthony Fasano, and Rob Gronkowski have all been compared to Bavaro.


“One of a kind…Run, block and catch. That was a football-playin’ guy right there.”—Bill Parcells.[6]

“I think Mark Bavaro is the best tight end in football because he is the only true tight end in football. He blocks. He catches. He punishes.”—Mike Ditka.[7]

“The greatest blocking job by a tight end I’ve ever seen in my life.”--John Madden, after a game in 1986.[8]

“Mark was a tremendous player. In my opinion, there aren’t many—I don’t know if there’s a more complete tight end than Mark Bavaro.”—Bill Belichick.[9]

On a Monday Night Football game on December 1, 1986, the 7-4-1 49ers led the 10-2 Giants 17-0 at the half. In the 3rd quarter, starting at their 49 yard line, Phil Simms completed a short pass to Bavaro, who turned it into a 31-yard gain by dragging 4 defenders for 20 yards. The play, often featured on NFL Films, set the tone for the rest of the game as the Giants scored on that possession and went on to win 21-17. A week later, against the 11-2 Redskins, Bavaro caught 5 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown in the 24-14 victory. He led the Giants to their first Super Bowl title that season, earning 1st Team All-Pro Honors, as well as his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
Unfortunately, the human body wasn’t meant to be used in the Earl Campbell-like mode with which Bavaro played. Injuries limited his career to 9 seasons and 126 career games. In those seasons, he caught 351 passes for 4,733 yards and 39 touchdowns, earned 2 trips to the Pro Bowl, 2 1st Team All-Pro honors, and 2 Super Bowl titles.

When his name came up on the 2007 Preliminary List, Hall voter Paul Zimmerman wrote, “Why hasn’t he made it before now? His name certainly has come up. I’d vote for him in a heartbeat. This is mysterious. Have there been negatives? I can’t recall any. OK, so he didn’t catch as many passes as other guys did, but blocking? Oh my God, he hunted linebackers down. Defensive ends, too. Please, let’s get him in there."[10]


Rich Caster
“Too fast and too tall to stop one-on-one,”[11] Caster was a nightmare for defenses. His 17.19 yards/reception ranks first among tight ends with a minimum of 300 catches. On September 24, 1972, Caster put on one of the greatest performances by a tight end in history. Clinging to a 30-27 4th quarter lead against the Baltimore Colts, Caster hauled in a 79 yard touchdown pass from Joe Namath to extend the Jets lead. Following a Johnny Unitas touchdown pass that again cut the Jets lead to 3, Caster caught an 80 yard touchdown pass to finish the scoring and secure the Jets victory. Caster finished the afternoon with 6 catches for 204 yards and 3 touchdowns. His 204 yards receiving is the third highest single game total among tight ends, trailing only Shannon Sharpe and Jackie Smith. Further, he became one of 12 players in history to have multiple 70-yard touchdown catches in a single game.[12] By the end of the season, Caster caught 39 passes for an astounding 833 yards (21.36 yards/catch) and 10 touchdowns. That season he became the last tight end to average 20 or more yards/catch with a minimum of 35 receptions. He made the 1st of his 3 Pro Bowl selections following the season.


In 1974, his 89-yard touchdown catch against the Miami Dolphins tied him for the longest TD catch by a tight end in NFL history with John Mackey.

Caster spent 8 seasons as a New York Jet, catching 245 passes for 4,434 yards and 36 touchdowns. Following the Oilers trade of Jimmie Giles, the Oilers acquired Caster in exchange for 2 7th round picks (#187 overall in 1979 (Keith Brown) and #190 overall in 1980 (Bennie Leverett)). With the Oilers, Caster made his first two postseasons, helping Houston to 2 AFC Championship Game appearances. He moved on to New Orleans before retiring as a Redskin following Washington’s victory in Super Bowl XVII. He retired with 322 catches for 5,515 yards, and 45 touchdowns.

Raymond Chester
Chester’s career is a question of “what might have been?” Selected in the first round of the 1970 NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders, Chester was named to the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons. He and Rob Gronkowski are the only tight ends in NFL history with 7 or more receiving touchdowns in each of their first three seasons. However, following the 1972 season, the Raiders traded Chester to Baltimore in exchange for defensive end Bubba Smith. His numbers immediately tailed off as the Colts were unable to utilize his abilities in the same manner as the Raiders. He returned to Oakland in 1978 in a trade for wide receiver Mike Siani. In his second season back with the club, Chester caught 8 touchdown passes and was again named a Pro Bowler. Among tight ends, only Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates have more seasons with 7 or more touchdown catches. In the 1980 AFC Championship Game, Chester’s 5 catches for 102 yards (which included a 65-yard touchdown to open the scoring) helped lead the Raiders to a 34-27 victory over the San Diego Chargers and into Super Bowl XV. After losing his starting position to Derrick Ramsey in 1981, Chester retired with 364 receptions for 5,013 yards and 48 touchdowns. After a year away from football, Chester came out of retirement to join the Oakland Invaders of the USFL. In its inaugural season, Chester caught 68 passes for 951 yards, was selected 1st Team All-USFL and was named the USFL Man of the Year. After the season, Chester again retired from professional football, this time permanently.


Todd Christensen
A four-year starter at running back for BYU, Christensen was selected in the 2nd Round of the 1978 Draft by the Dallas Cowboys. After spending his first season on injured reserve with a broken foot, the Cowboys asked Christensen to try tight end. Christensen preferred to stay in the backfield so the Cowboys released him after the final Preseason game. The Giants signed him in time for the opening game and, after appearing in one play, promptly released him. He signed with the Raiders after their 4th game and became a stalwart on special teams for the next 3 seasons. But his presence on this list is as a result of his career beginning in 1982. During the strike-shortened season, following the retirement of Raymond Chester and an injury to Derrick Ramsey, Christensen was given an opportunity as a tight end. He caught only 3 passes in the first 2 games, but following the work stoppage, his role changed. In the first game after the strike, Christensen caught 8 passes for 83 yards and a touchdown in a 28-24 victory over the Chargers. In the final 6 games of the 9 game season, Christensen caught 31 passes, and added 11 more in 2 playoff games. He followed that up with 4 of the biggest seasons any tight has ever had.

Year
Receptions
Yards
Average
TDs
1983
92
1247
13.6
12
1984
80
1007
12.6
7
1985
82
987
12
6
1986
95
1153
12.1
8

To put this into perspective, here are the tight ends with 1,000 yard receiving seasons:
Rank
Player
Team
# of Seasons
1
Tony Gonzalez
Kansas City
4
2
Jason Witten
Dallas
4
3
Todd Christensen
Los Angeles
3
4
Shannon Sharpe
Denver
3
5
Kellen Winslow
San Diego
3
6
Antonio Gates
San Diego
2
7
Ozzie Newsome
Cleveland
2
8
New Orleans
2
9
Mark Bavaro
New York
1
10
Dallas Clark
Indianapolis
1
11
Ben Coates
New England
1
12
Mike Ditka
Chicago
1
13
Rob Gronkowski
New England
1
14
Pete Retzlaff
Philadelphia
1
15
Minnesota
1
16
Jackie Smith
St. Louis
1
17
Kellen Winslow Jr.
Cleveland
1

In the strike-shortened 1987 season, Christensen added 47 catches for 663 yards, but his 1988 season was cut short due to leg injuries, and then he was released during the 1989 preseason.

Christensen completed his career with 461 catches for 5,872 yards, and 41 touchdowns. Unfortunately for Christensen, he only had 6 seasons as a full-time starter, and 2 of those were cut short due to work stoppages. But for those 6 seasons he was one of the top tight ends in history. He was named to 5 consecutive Pro Bowls and was twice selected as a 1st-Team All-Pro and twice selected to the 2nd Team.

Ben Coates
Ben Coates was the perfect tight end for Coach Bill Parcells’ tight end oriented offense. Big and fast with soft hands, Coates was a good blocker with a terrific work ethic. In his first two seasons out of Livingstone College, Coates caught 30 passes for 266 yards. But then Parcells was hired to coach the Patriots and Coates’ career took off. In 1993 he caught 53 passes for 659 yards and 8 touchdowns and in 1994 he set a then tight end reception record with 96 catches for 1174 yards and 7 touchdowns. In five consecutive Pro Bowl seasons between 1994 and 1998, Coates didn’t catch fewer than 62 passes or gain fewer than 668 yards. After 9 seasons with New England, Coates joined the Baltimore Ravens in 2000, helping them to a victory in Super Bowl XXXV.


Coates retired with 499 catches for 5,555 yards and 50 touchdowns. As stated above, he was named to the All-Decade Team of the 1990s. 

Paul Coffman
A former walk-on at Kansas State, Coffman did not earn a starting position until his senior season. He went undrafted by the NFL so he packed up his 1967 Chevrolet and attended a Green Bay Packers’ tryout camp. By his second season, he was the starting tight end. By season 5 he was a Pro Bowler. Standing only 6’3 and weighing in at 222 pounds, Coffman outworked the opposition, spending 5 or 6 hours each day training during the offseason.

Between 1981 and 1983, the Packers had the best trio of receivers in the NFL, with Coffman, James Lofton, and John Jefferson. Despite possessing a high-powered passing attack, Green Bay finished 8-8 in 1981, 1983, 1984, and 1985, only finishing with a winning record in the strike shortened 1982 season. During this time frame, Coffman was named to 3 Pro Bowls. The Packers released both quarterback Lynn Dickey and Coffman during the 1986 training camp. Coffman then spent two seasons with the Chiefs and one with the Vikings before retiring. His career numbers include 339 receptions for 4,340 yards and 42 touchdowns. 

Chris Cooley
A 3rd round pick out of Utah State by the Redskins in 2004, Cooley battled injuries for most of his career, limiting him to 5 seasons as a full-time starter. During those 5 seasons, however, Cooley was one of the most productive tight ends in the NFL. From 2005 to 2010, among tight ends, only Gonzalez, Gates, and Witten caught more passes for more yards than Cooley. He is one of only 8 tight ends to have had 3 or more seasons with at least 70 catches and at least 700 yards receiving.[13] And he is the only tight end in history with 6+ touchdown catches in each of his first 4 seasons in the league. He retired with 429 catches for 4,711 yards and 33 touchdowns. Cooley was selected to the Pro Bowl following the 2007 and 2008 seasons.

Alge Crumpler
“The guy is so good, it’s just not fair.”[14] For four seasons, Crumpler was one of the most dominant tight ends in the game. From 2003-2006, he represented the NFC in the Pro Bowl. During that time period, only Gonzalez and Gates had more receiving yards and touchdowns among tight ends. And Crumpler’s 14.0 yards per reception led all tight ends, with only Dallas Clark within a yard of Crumpler’s average. But then Michael Vick’s career took a detour. And with him, he took Crumpler’s success. As Vick struggled with the West Coast Offense and how to be a pocket-passer, Crumpler was his security blanket. Without Vick, the Falcons turned to Joey Harrington in 2007. Crumpler produced his fewest receiving yards since his rookie season. The Falcons released him following the season, at which time Crumpler joined the Titans, who, unfortunately for Alge, subjected him to the “quarterbacking skills” of Vince Young. Needless to say, Crumpler’s numbers continued to decrease. In 2010, he joined the Patriots for his final season, but he served in a backup capacity to Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. In his ten NFL seasons, Crumpler totaled 373 receptions for 4,743 yards, and 39 touchdowns.


Russ Francis
Francis grew up in Hawaii, the son of professional wrestler Gentleman Ed Francis. In high school Russ starred in football, wrestling, and basketball. When the family moved to Oregon, Francis took up track and field, and set the national high school record for the javelin.

He attended the University of Oregon where he participated in both football and track and field. He broke his leg in 1972 after playing only 3 games but he broke out in 1973 as the team’s leading receiver (31 catches for 495 yards and 4 touchdowns) and earned 1st Team All-Pac 8 honors. But then Oregon replaced head coach Dick Enright with Don Read. Francis objected, and was told it was none of his business. So he quit the team and dropped out of college. But after being told he was ineligible for the draft since he had eligibility remaining, he enrolled at Oregon State in January of 1975. Since he enrolled in another Pac 8 school, this cost him his final year of eligibility, thus enabling him to be drafted. Despite missing his senior season, and only playing 14 varsity games, the Patriots selected him in the 1st Round.

In 1975, he was named to the NFL All-Rookie Team after catching 35 passes for 636 yards and 4 touchdowns. In 1976, the Patriots featured one of the great running offenses in history, totaling 2,948 yards, a total that still ranks 8th all-time despite taking place in a 14-game season. With the emphasis on the ground game, the Patriots only completed 146 passes on the season. As a result, Francis’ numbers dropped to 26 catches for 367 yards. But he hadn’t lost anything, as evidenced by his 6 catch/139 yard game in a 30-27 victory over the Steelers, a season in which Pittsburgh pitched 5 shutouts. Despite the modest numbers, Francis was named to his first Pro Bowl, while the Pats finished 11-3 and won the AFC East.


1977 got off to a bad start when guards John Hannah and Leon Gray walked out on the team. The Pats slipped to third place and Francis only caught 16 passes for 229 yards, but he was again named a Pro Bowler.

The following season had a tragic beginning for the Patriots, as wide receiver Darryl Stingley suffered an injury that left him paralyzed. The Patriots marched on, however, again finishing in 1st place with an 11-5 record. Francis made his 3rd consecutive Pro Bowl, with 39 catches for 543 yards. And the Patriots set a still-standing NFL record with 3,165 yards rushing.

After the 1978 season, Francis was involved in a motorcycle accident in which he suffered a broken arm and ankle and killed his passenger. He was in a wheelchair for a month and thus reported to camp in 1979 out of shape. Nonetheless, the Pats were 6-2 at the halfway point of the season, and Francis had 29 catches and 5 touchdowns. But in game against Miami on October 21, he cracked a transverse process, missing the next 2 games. He then suffered a severe concussion on November 29 against Miami, and missed the rest of the season. New England went 3-5 in the second half and missed the playoffs by one game.

In 1980, New England finished 10-6 but missed out on the playoffs. Francis caught 41 passes for 664 yards and 8 touchdowns, and then, he abruptly retired, purportedly unhappy with life as a football player.


He spent 1981 working as a broadcaster, until Bill Walsh convinced him that life is too short and he wouldn’t get a second chance at being a professional football player. The 49ers traded a 1st Round pick (#27 overall—Lester Williams), 2 Second Round picks (#41—Andre Tippett and #55—Darryl Haley), and a 4th Round Pick (#111—Bryan Ingram) to the Pats for Francis. He became San Francisco’s starting tight end for the next several seasons, and in 75 games caught 186 passes for 2,105 yards and 12 touchdowns. In the 49ers’ victory over the Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX, he caught 5 passes for 60 yards.

Francis finished his career with one more season as a Patriot in 1988, and retired with 393 receptions for 5,262 yards and 40 TDs.


Antonio Gates
The Odyssey of Antonio Gates:

Gates was an All-State football and basketball player in high school. In basketball, he led Detroit Central to the State Championship and was runner-up to Dane Fife for Michigan’s Mr. Basketball Award. In football, he was ranked No. 6 on the Detroit News Blue Chip List. He signed with Michigan State to play both sports. But as a partial-qualifier he couldn’t play either sport and transferred to Eastern Michigan. He joined the basketball team and became eligible after the first semester. In 18 games he averaged 10.2 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. However, after a first round loss in the MAC tournament, EMU fired head coach Milton Barnes, and replaced him with Jim Boone, who wanted a team of role models for the university and the community. Several players transferred or were dismissed, including Gates, who was dismissed for academic issues.

Gates then transferred to the College of the Sequoias in California. Although he was on the football team, he was red-shirted so he did not play. Following a semester there, Gates transferred to Henry Ford Community College in Michigan for the Spring semester. The following Fall he enrolled at Kent State. The football coach of the Golden Flashes (Dean Pees) had been the defensive coordinator at Michigan State during Gates’ brief tenure. The head basketball coach Stan Heath had been a Michigan State assistant at that same time. It was a perfect fit.

In his first season with Kent State, Gates was named 2nd Team All-MAC in leading the Flashes to the MAC regular season championship. He was named to the All-Tournament team in helping Kent State win the Conference Tournament. A 10-seed in the NCAA Tournament, Kent State upset Oklahoma State, Alabama, and Pittsburgh, before running into Indiana in the Elite 8. The Hoosiers shot 15 for 19 on 3-pointers to hold off Kent State 81-69. Kent finished the season 30-6 and ranked 12th in the final Coaches Poll. After Kent’s run, Gates decided to forego football and concentrate on basketball and academics.

As a senior, Gates averaged 20.6 point and 7.7 rebounds per game, 1st Team All-MAC, runner-up for MAC Player of the Year, and Honorable Mention All-American, but a loss to Central Michigan (and Chris Kaman) in the MAC Tournament Final sent them to the NIT, where they were summarily dismissed by the College of Charleston. Gates ended his career with a school single-season record of 640 points. 


After a poor showing at the Portsmouth Invitational, a basketball proving ground for second-tier draft hopefuls, Gates held private workouts for several NFL teams. Although not drafted, Gates signed a 2-year contract with the Chargers. 8 Pro Bowls and 3 1st Team All-Pro selections later, the rest is history.

Jimmie Giles
A 3rd Round pick of the Houston Oilers in 1977, Giles and 4 draft picks were traded to the Bucs for the first overall choice in the 1978 draft (Earl Campbell). A big target for his era at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, Giles spent 9 seasons in a Tampa Bay uniform, collecting 279 receptions for 4,300 yards and a team record 34 touchdowns. Despite making three playoff appearances, the Bucs were terrible for most of Giles career, with a record of 45-82-1 during his tenure. Tampa was 1-6 in games in which Giles eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark. On October 20, 1985, Giles caught 4 touchdown passes, a single game total that trails only the record-setting 5 caught by Jerry Rice and Kellen Winslow. Despite Giles’ efforts, the Bucs lost 41-38 to the Miami Dolphins that day.

Despite toiling on bad teams in Tampa, Giles was named to 4 Pro Bowls and earned the respect of his opponents. Ozzie Newsome, when discussing the greatest tight ends in history, listed Giles with Mackey, Ditka, Jackie Smith, and Shannon Sharpe.[15] In October 2011 at a luncheon for old Bucs and Bears, former Bears linebacker Otis Wilson said, “[t]he toughest time we ever had is…Jimmie Giles…[T]his guy was the best tight end to ever play football.”[16]


The Bucs released Giles during the 1986 season, and he was picked up by the Detroit Lions. He was later traded to the Philadelphia Eagles[17] where he ended his career with 350 receptions for 5,084 yards and 41 touchdowns. In 2011, the Bucs selected him to be the third member of the franchise’s Ring of Honor, joining Lee Roy Selmon and John McKay.

Tony Gonzalez
1325 catches. 15,127 yards. 111 touchdowns. Any questions?

Eric Green
A year-by-year look at Eric Green’s career, through quotations of the men around him:

“If you had an Erector set and somebody said, ‘Make me a tight end,’ this is who you’d make.”[18]—Sam Rutigliano, Green’s head coach at Liberty University.

When Rutigliano arrived, Green had made 37 receptions in 3 less than impressive seasons. Rutigliano, however, saw “Mark Bavaro in a bigger package” and redesigned the offense around Green, who caught 62 passes for 905 yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior.[19] The Pittsburgh Steelers subsequently selected Green in the 1st Round (No. 21) of the 1990 NFL Draft.


“Maybe you get some people who are trying to get drafted No. 1 who really aren’t interested in playing professional football. They are more interested in getting a political base to get as much money as they can. I’d just as soon not have people like that around, if it’s a first-round choice or whatever. I think what we’ve proved is 12th-round choices are as important as first-round choices. Maybe we put too much value on first-round choices. He’s not worth that much to us anymore. He missed all this time. It’s not worth it. I’m not interested in Eric Green right now. I’m interested in the guys we have here. I’m only interested in our people and he’s not one of our people right now.”[20]—Steelers head coach Chuck Noll.

Green held out for 51-days, missing all of training camp and not signing until the day after the season opener. Head coach Chuck Noll was not interested in having Green on the team. Nonetheless, Green became a starter Week 5. The Steelers were 1-3 and the offense had scored 0 touchdowns in 46 possessions. In his first 2 starts, Pittsburgh victories, Green caught 7 passes and 5 touchdowns. He finished the season with 34 catches for 387 yards and 11 touchdowns, and the Steelers finished 9-7.

“He’s big enough to block people like a tackle. He’s fast enough to be a wide receiver and make receiver-type catches. And he’s fluid enough to beat linebackers and secondary people from the tight end spot. He’s an unbelievable athlete who I think is going to be a legitimate superstar. Hey, he’s a superstar already.”[21]—Steelers offensive coordinator Joe Walton.

Green was the perfect tight end for Joe Walton’s offense. But in his second season, he suffered a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament during the preseason, causing him to miss much of training camp. The inactivity added 20 pounds to his already large frame. The injury hampered him all year until he broke his ankle in November, causing him to miss the final 5 games of the season. Nonetheless, in 11 games he caught 41 passes for 582 yards and 6 touchdowns.

“There’s quite a bit of difference in the offenses. There are times he might be the primary receiver and times he won’t. I don’t think you can build a team with one guy.”[22]—Steelers new offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt.

Following the 1991 season, Bill Cowher replaced Chuck Noll as head coach of the Steelers and Ron Erhardt replaced Joe Walton as offensive coordinator. With the coaching change, less of the offensive focus was geared toward Green, which ultimately was a good thing. Green injured his shoulder during the preseason, then reinjured himself on the first play of the season opener against the Houston Oilers, causing him to miss the first 4 games. After returning, he caught 14 passes for 152 yards and 2 touchdowns in 5 games, including the game-winner against Houston on November 1. But on November 9, the NFL suspended Green for 6 games for violating the League’s substance abuse policy. He returned in time for the season finale and also appeared in the Divisional Playoff, but didn’t catch a pass in either game.

“Your value is correlated to your accountability. That’s going to be measured over time.”[23]—Steelers head coach Bill Cowher.

After a disappointing 1992 season, Green dedicated himself to working hard throughout the offseason to prepare for the 1993 season, which was the final year of his contract. The hard work paid off, as Green appeared in 16 games for the first time in his 4 year career. The Steelers made the playoffs but lost to Joe Montana and the Chiefs in overtime. Green’s touchdown with 4:11 remaining gave Steelers 24-17 lead. He ended the year with 63 catches for 942 yards and 5 touchdowns. Yet when the AFC Pro Bowl squad was named, Green was listed as the first alternate behind Shannon Sharpe and Keith Jackson. Jackson, who had 39 catches for 613 yards, agreed he shouldn’t have been selected. But 1993 was the first year of fan voting, which counted for one-third of the total, and ultimately was the difference maker for Jackson’s selection. But Jackson pulled out with a groin injury, allowing Green to appear in his first Pro Bowl. With 7 votes, Green finished fourth in the AP All-Pro voting, behind Sharpe (42), Brent Jones (20), and Pete Metzelaars (8). The Steelers designated Green their franchise player.


“Eric feels he’s being held hostage. He’s extremely upset. He’s real bitter right now.”[24]—Green’s agent Drew Rosenhaus.

As a free agent, the Steelers used the franchise tag on Green, and offered the minimum one-year contract for a tight end franchise player ($1.434 million), while trying to work out a multi-year contract. Green wanted $2.5 million per year while Pittsburgh would not offer more than $2 million. Green did not like any offer and held out all of training camp, eventually accepting the one-year deal a few days before the season opener, in hopes he would not be designated the franchise tag again after the season, allowing him to be an unrestricted free agent. After missing all of training camp, Green did not impress in the opener against the Dallas Cowboys, in Barry Switzer’s NFL debut. The Steelers were outgained 442 to 126, Neil O’Donnell was sacked 10 times, Green caught 2 passes for 24 yards, and the Cowboys won (in Pittsburgh) 26-9. Pittsburgh regrouped, however, finishing 12-4, but losing the AFC Conference Championship to the San Diego Chargers 17-13. Green finished the season with 46 catches for 618 yards and 4 touchdowns, but was perhaps best known for organizing a Super Bowl rap video a couple of days before the loss to the Chargers. Once again, Green was passed over for the Pro Bowl, as Ben Coates and Shannon Sharpe were named to the AFC squad. This time Sharpe pulled out, and Green replaced him in the lineup. He added two touchdowns in the Pro Bowl. Following the season, the Steelers used the franchise tag on Carnell Lake, making Green an unrestricted free agent.

“This is how people have to run their business and we all realize that. Eric Green is just the flavor of the week.”[25]—Keith Jackson’s agent Gary Wichard.

Dolphins’ tight end Keith Jackson had stated 1995 might be his last season. Unsure of Jackson’s future, and looking for a better blocker, the Dolphins turned its sights on finding another tight end. They signed Green to a 6-yr. $12 million contract with a $3.5 million signing bonus. Things started well. After 2 games, the Dolphins ranked 2nd in the league in rushing offense. Although they struggled on the ground the next two weeks, they still managed to begin the season 4-0. But then they lost 3 consecutive games by a total of 7 points, and suffered another 3-game losing streak later in the season. Their running game was not nearly as good as people thought, and they ended 9-7. They lost in the playoffs to Buffalo 37-22. Green finished the season with 43 catches for 499 yards and 3 touchdowns, and perhaps most importantly, he missed 39 practices during the year. After the season, Palm Beach Post sports editor Dan Moffett wrote, “It is impossible to watch Green play without hearing the Dire Straits rock anthem Money for Nothin’ blaring in the subconscious.”[26] Buffalo News columnist Larry Felser referred to Green as “Doink,” because that’s the sound you hear when Green drops a pass, which happens about every other time one is thrown to him.[27] Green dropped four passes in the AFC wildcard game. Six days after the season, Shula retired. The Dolphins hired Jimmy Johnson as his replacement.

“I didn’t want him on our football team.”[28]—Dolphins head coach Jimmy Johnson.

Shortly after Johnson took over coaching duties, Green injured his knee. There were discrepancies in the story about how the injury occurred. Green later missed a non-mandatory rehab assignment, the only injured Dolphin to do so, and he was released. Despite failing his physical, he signed with the Ravens four weeks into the 1996 season on a 1-year/$432,000 contract. He was finally cleared to play in time for Baltimore’s 7th game, a 45-34 loss to Denver in which Green caught 3 passes for 30 yards. After appearing in 5 straight games (4 losses), Green was out due to the lingering effects of his knee. But he came back a week later to face his former Steelers team, and scored his only touchdown of the season, a 3-yard catch that provided the final margin in a 31-17 victory. He had his 2nd surgery of the year and missed the remainder of the season.


“Eric has been one of the surprises in camp. There have been no problems with his knee, and he’s done an excellent job to this point.”[29]—Ravens head coach Ted Marchibroda

Green agreed to another one year deal, this one worth slightly more than the veteran minimum of $275,000, but loaded with incentives. After an offseason spent rehabbing his knee, Green earned the starting tight end position over Brian Kinchen, and had a very productive season, appearing in all 16 games while catching 65 passes for 601 yards and 5 touchdowns. 

“There is a fire there, like he has something to prove. He has come ready to play. With most players, you play to their strengths. With Eric, you really don’t know what his strength is, because he has speed, quickness and power. He can do it all.”[30]—Ravens defensive end Peter Boulware.

Green again signed a one year contract with the Ravens. He was one of the most impressive performers during training camp and started off the season great, catching 10 passes for 190 yards over the first 3 games. He was held to 2 catches against Cincinnati in Week 4, but then he suffered a ruptured air sac in his lung during the 2nd quarter against Tennessee. After missing the next couple of games, he returned to face Jacksonville. According to head coach Ted Marchibroda, “I think at this particular time, our leader on the offensive club is Eric Green. Before he left, he was our go-to-guy. He was the guy who’s one of the outstanding blockers in the NFL. He was our guy as far as passes are concerned. He’s the guy I think we could least afford to miss over these last three weeks.”[31] In the teams’ last full game with him, they won 31-24. Without him, the offense managed one touchdown in 2 ½ games. Upon his return to the lineup, he didn’t provide the expected lift in a 45-19 loss to Jacksonville, catching 4 passes for 43 yards and 2 fumbles. During the contest, he dislocated his pinkie, which required surgery and forced him to miss the next game. He came back and played solidly, but he was not the same player. The Ravens focused on him a lot, and defenses keyed on him. The offense consistently scored more points with him on the field but a bruised a knee against Chicago forced him to miss the season finale. He had arthroscopic knee surgery following the season.

“Eric Green just stinks.”[32]—Jets head coach Bill Parcells.

After Jacksonville signed tight end Kyle Brady to a 5-year/$14.4 million contract, the Jets were in the market for a new tight end, and targeted Green, signing him to a 4-year/$7.5 million deal. After experiencing knee pain throughout the preseason, Green injured his neck in the season opener, causing him to sit out Week 2. He returned but played abysmally the next several weeks, before undergoing another knee surgery. He returned for a couple of more games before being placed on injured reserve. In all, he was mostly used as a blocker, albeit a poor one, and caught only 7 passes for 37 yards. He underwent neck surgery after the season and he was waived by the Jets.

Green finished his career with 362 catches for 4,390 yards, and 36 touchdowns.

Todd Heap
Selected in the 1st Round of the 2001 NFL Draft, Heap ranks 1st on the all-time Baltimore Ravens list for receiving touchdowns and 2nd in receptions and receiving yards. He finished his 12 year career (the final 2 with the Cardinals) with 499 catches, 5,869 yards, and 42 touchdowns. Heap was named a Pro Bowler in each of his first 2 seasons as a starter.


Rodney Holman
Rodney Holman may be the poster child for the idea that the media is not a good judge of talent. Although tight ends need to be good blockers as well as receivers, “[s]ome of the so-called experts tend to give precedence to one aspect of our job over another.”[33] Holman consistently posted solid numbers for the Bengals while being an excellent blocker. “His blocking is a pretty thing to watch.”[34] But Holman had the misfortune of playing during a time when the tight end’s role in the passing game was being reduced. When Holman entered the league in 1982, Kellen Winslow was the ideal tight end. In 1983, Winslow caught 88 passes for 1172 yards. In 1984, 15 tight ends caught 40 or more passes. Fast forward to 1989 and Rodney Holman was 1 of 5 tight ends with 40 or more catches. And he was the only tight end to eclipse 700 yards receiving, a number that had been reached by 8 men in 1984. Even though he was one of the best tight ends in his time, he was underappreciated. He was named to 3 consecutive Pro Bowls between 1988 and 1990. After 11 seasons with Cincinnati, he played 3 years with Detroit before retiring with 365 receptions, 4,771 yards, and 36 touchdowns. His 4 seasons with 30 or more catches while averaging 14 or more yards per reception trails only the six seasons produced by Riley Odoms and Jackie Smith.

Keith Jackson
Among players whose careers began after the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, only Earl Campbell, Lawrence Taylor, Barry Sanders, and Keith Jackson were named 1st Team All-Pro in each of their first three seasons. Unfortunately, Jackson was unable to sustain his initial success.

In his 1988 rookie season, he set a Philadelphia single-season record with 81 catches, surpassing Mike Quick’s total of 73 set in 1985. He came 2 receptions short of Earl Cooper’s NFL rookie mark of 83 set in 1980. He was 2nd in the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year voting behind New England running back John Stephens, but he won the NFC Rookie of the Year over Tampa Bay’s Paul Gruber. In year 2, his numbers dropped off but he still finished with 63 catches for 648 yards.

In 1990, Jackson sat out the first 2 games in a futile attempt to force the Eagles to renegotiate his contract. He eventually reported and had another 50 catch season. His numbers fell off in 1991 due to injuries to Randall Cunningham and Jim McMahon. He was also used more as a blocker to compensate for the struggles of rookie offensive tackle Antone Davis.


In 1992, Jackson held out for a contract on par with that received by Jerry Rice. As his holdout stretched into the season, a federal jury ruled that Plan B, under which teams are allowed to protect 37 players each year, violated federal antitrust rules. Under Plan B, protected players could not offer their services to other teams without allowing their current team a chance to sign them. Any team signing a protected player had to compensate the player’s original club. After the jury’s decision, four players (Jackson, Garin Veris, Webster Slaughter, and DJ Dozier) asked the judge for a temporary order forcing the NFL to declare them free agents. The judge granted their request but only allowed them 5 days of free agency. Jackson ultimately signed a 4-year/$6-million contract with the Miami Dolphins. In his 1st game with Miami, he caught 4 passes for 64 yards and a touchdown in a 37-10 victory over the Buffalo Bills. Miami won the AFC East finishing 11-5, but lost in the playoffs to Buffalo 29-10.

In 3 seasons in Miami, Jackson caught 146 passes for 1880 yards. In 1995, in hopes of getting a better run blocker, the Dolphins signed Eric Green to a six-year, $12 million contract. After the signing, Jackson, who had been contemplating retirement, was traded to Green Bay, with a 4th round pick, in exchange for a 2nd Round pick (#53). Jackson refused to report, and the Packers filed a grievance against Jackson for the entire signing bonus if he did not fulfill his contract. He ultimately reported to the Packers on October 20, allegedly after watching them play a Monday night game against Chicago. Backing up Mark Chmura, Jackson provided little help for the Packers who won the NFC Central. He appeared in 9 games and caught 13 passes for 142 yards. But he exploded in the playoffs, with 4 catches for 101 yards and 1 TD against San Francisco and 5 catches for 99 yards and a touchdown in the NFC Championship game against Dallas. Rejuvenated by the success of Green Bay, Jackson came back for one more season, catching 40 passes for 505 yards and a career high 10 touchdown catches. He added 5 catches in the postseason and retired following the 35-21 victory over the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

Jackson finished with 441 receptions for 5,283 yards and 49 TDs. His 6 postseason touchdowns tie him with Jay Novacek for 2nd on the all-time list among tight ends, trailing only Dave Casper’s 7, while his 834 yards receiving in the postseason ranks second behind Dallas Clark’s 847.

Brent Jones
A member of 3 Super Bowl champion teams with the San Francisco 49ers, Jones finished his career with 417 catches for 5,195 yards and 33 touchdowns. He made 4 consecutive Pro Bowls and was twice selected to the AP All-Pro 2nd Team. He is one of 21 players with 60 or more postseason catches, and he trails only Jay Novacek (62) and Shannon Sharpe (62) among tight ends.

Steve Jordan
Selected in the 7th Round out of Brown University, Jordan was named to 6 Pro Bowls. Only Gonzalez, Gates, Sharpe, Sanders, and Witten were named to more, yet Jordan has been largely forgotten. His appearance on the Hall of Fame’s preliminary list several years ago was the result of the Highway to Hall nominating him. He spent all 13 seasons in Minnesota, totaling 498 catches for 6,307 yards and 28 touchdowns. It is this last number that probably prevented him from being better known, as the Vikings shied away from him near the end zone. For instance, in 1985, Jordan caught a team-leading 68 passes for 795 yards (26 yards behind team leader Anthony Carter), yet never found the end zone (more on this in the Jeremy Shockey section). A part of 7 Vikings playoff teams, Minnesota could never get over the hump, only twice winning a postseason game during his tenure.


Jay Novacek
Ethan Horton…Jonathan Hayes…Mark Bavaro…Tony DavisKeli McGregorK.D. Dunn…Keith Lester…Mark Lewis…Jay Novacek. The 1985 NFL Draft was a bit of a joke, particularly when it came to the tight end position. The top names on pre-draft boards were Keli McGregor and Tony Davis. Obviously the Chiefs, who selected Horton and Hayes in the top 2 rounds, and the Giants, who selected Bavaro in round 4, disagreed. Once New York chose Bavaro, it began a run on tight ends, with 9 selected between rounds 4 and 6. A total of 23 tight ends were selected, yet somehow everyone missed on Novacek, an athlete good enough to finish 4th in the NCAA in the decathlon and qualify for the Olympic Trials. The 5 tight ends selected between Bavaro and Novacek combined to start 9 games and catch a total of 16 passes. Bavaro’s stats were discussed previously. Novacek finished his career with 422 catches for 4,630 yards and 30 touchdowns. Sometimes the talent evaluators forget athleticism, which is surprising for a position which thrives on it.

Regardless, Novacek was selected in the 6th round by the Cardinals, who were immediately impressed by him. “The first thing you notice about Novacek is that he’s a big man…But he really moves well for his size.”[35] Go figure. A decathlete that can move well. Will wonders never cease? Nonetheless, Novacek spent two seasons backing up Doug Marsh. After Marsh’s retirement, the Cardinals drafted Robert Awalt, who split time with Novacek to form one of the best tight end duos in the NFL. Novacek’s best season in a Cardinal uniform came in 1988, when he caught 38 passes for 569 yards.

In 1990, Novacek signed with the Dallas Cowboys as a Plan B free agent. Immediately inserted into the starting lineup, Novacek set career highs with 59 catches for 657 yards and 4 touchdowns, and immediately became one of Troy Aikman’s favorite targets: “I don’t want to play on a team without Jay Novacek. He’s my security blanket. He gives us a lot of flexibility in our passing game, and I don’t know where we’d be without him.”[36]

The following season, Novacek posted near identical numbers (59 catches for 664 yards and 4 TDs), but this time he was rewarded with the first of 5 consecutive Pro Bowl trips.

With Dallas, Novacek was a part of 3 Super Bowl champions. His 6 postseason touchdowns trail only Dave Casper among tight ends in that category.


Novacek retired after the Cowboys’ victory in Super Bowl XXX, making him one of 18 players to be named a Pro Bowler in each of his final 5 seasons.[37]

Riley Odoms
Odoms is one of only 3 tight ends selected in the top 5 of the NFL draft. Selected #5 overall in the 1972 draft, Odoms spent his entire 12 year career with the Broncos. He was the NFL’s top tight end before Dave Casper arrived on the scene. He was named AP 2nd Team All-Pro in 1973 before earning 1st Team honors in 1974 and 1975. He again made the 2nd Team in Denver’s 1977 Super Bowl season, but was inexplicably left off the All-Pro teams in 1978, despite career highs in receptions and yards. A model of consistency, Odoms is one of 7 tight ends with 9 or more consecutive seasons with 30+ catches. Ozzie Newsome is the only other member whose career began before 1997.[38] Odoms retired following the 1983 season with 396 catches for 5,755 yards and 41 touchdowns. His name is noticeably absent from the Broncos Ring of Honor.

Pete Retzlaff
Retzlaff deserves an asterisk to be included in this list because he spent many seasons as a wide receiver before moving to tight end during the 1962 season. But during the next 3 ½ seasons, he produced incredible numbers, more than enough to garner inclusion among this group.

An outstanding collegiate athlete, Retzlaff set NAIA records for the shot put and the discus at South Dakota State, a program that also produced Hall of Famer Jim Langer and future Hall of Famer Adam Vinatieri. Retzlaff was drafted in the 22nd round of the 1953 draft by the Detroit Lions but returned to college to work in the athletic department, before joining the military in 1954. After his discharge from the service in 1956, he learned his contract had been sold to the Eagles. Retzlaff produced 2 less than stellar seasons with the Eagles before Philadelphia acquired Norm van Brocklin, at which point Retzlaff’s career took off. He led the NFL in receiving in 1958, and made the first of 5 trips to the Pro Bowl. 


In 1960, he led the Eagles to the NFL Championship and made his 2nd Pro Bowl appearance. But in 1962, a rash of injuries forced him to move to tight end. He proceeded to produce 3 straight seasons with 50 catches and 800 yards receiving. In 1965, he posted the 2nd 1,000 yard season by a tight end in NFL history, surpassing Mike Ditka’s 1,076 yards in 1961 with 1,190 yards, a total that still ranks 8th all-time.  That season he was named 1st Team All-Pro and earned the Bert Bell Award as the NFL MVP. Retzlaff retired following the 1966 season, and he still ranks 2nd on the Philadelphia Eagles list for receptions (452) and yards (7412) behind Harold Carmichael.

Jeremy Shockey
Three tight ends have caught 50 or more passes in a season without a touchdown. As stated above, Steve Jordan caught 68 passes in 1985 but never found the end zone. In 1989, Eric Sievers caught 54 passes for New England with no scores. In 2008, Shockey became the third member of this illustrious group, catching 50 passes and no touchdowns.

In the storied history of the New York Giants, eight tight ends have caught 100 or more passes. The list, in the order of yards/reception, is as follows:

Rank
Player
Catches
Yards
Touchdowns
Yards/Rec
1
Aaron Thomas
247
4253
35
17.22
2
Mark Bavaro
266
3722
28
13.99
3
119
1600
18
13.45
4
Bob Tucker
327
4376
22
13.38
5
129
1698
12
13.16
6
Gary Shirk
130
1640
11
12.62
7
Jeremy Shockey
371
4228
27
11.40
8
201
2194
17
10.92

Mickey Shuler
Shuler was a big part of the Jets high-powered aerial attack in the 1980s. With wide receiver Wesley Walker as the deep threat, Shuler played the role of the possession receiver, catching 65 or more passes in a season on four occasions. Although his average of 11.04 yards/reception is the 6th lowest among all tight ends with 300 or more career catches, Shuler had some big performances. In the Jets’ 1981 playoff loss to the Bills, in which New York spotted Buffalo a 24-0 lead, Shuler caught 6 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown. In a 17-17 tie to the Chiefs in 1988, Shuler caught 12 passes for 152 yards. He also scored 3 second quarter touchdowns in the 62-28 beatdown of the Bucs in 1985. Shuler spent his first 12 seasons with New York before finishing his career with the Eagles. He totaled 562 catches for 5,100 yards and 37 touchdowns. A 2-time Pro Bowler, Shuler was named to the AP All-Pro 2nd Team in 1988.



Jerry Smith
“The Kellen Winslow of the 1960s,”[39] Jerry Smith retired following the 1977 NFL season with 421 catches for 5,496 yards and 60 touchdowns. At that time, he ranked 3rd in both receptions and yards among tight ends (behind Ditka and Jackie Smith) and 1st in touchdowns. In fact, he ranked an emphatic first in touchdowns. Second place belonged to Ditka and his 43 touchdowns. Jackie Smith was the only other tight end with at least 40, and he had exactly 40. A total of 11 men had 30 or more, meaning Jerry Smith had at least twice as many touchdowns as all but 10 tight ends.

27-Y Corner. “It started with a fake to (halfback) Larry Brown off tackle…[t]hat left Jerry open in the corner (for a touchdown). It was our best goal-line play. We could run it in our sleep.”[40]
As the years moved on, tight ends became a bigger part of the passing game, and the numbers increased. By 1987, Jerry Smith ranked 6th in catches and 7th in yards, but still 1st in touchdowns, although now 14 tight ends had at least 40 touchdowns. But no one else had more than 50.
By 1997, Jerry Smith was 11th in receptions and 9th in yards, but still no other tight end had more than 50 touchdowns.

In fact, it wasn’t until 1999 when Jerry Smith finally had company in the 50-touchdown club (Ben Coates). And it took until 2003 for someone else to join, and ultimately pass, him in the 60-touchdown club (Shannon Sharpe).


Today, his numbers don’t look spectacular. He ranks 24th in catches and 16th in yards. But his 60 touchdowns trail only Gonzalez (107), Gates (86), and Sharpe (62).

When asked if he could make sense of Smith’s death at the age of 43, quarterback Sonny Jurgensen responded, “Lombardi must have needed a tight end…He went for the best.”[41]

Bob Trumpy
Some facts about Bob Trumpy:

(1)   In 1968, Trumpy, running back Paul Robinson, and center Bob Johnson became the first Bengals named to the Pro Bowl.
(2)   His 22.57 yard/catch average in 1969 is an NFL record for tight ends with a minimum of 30 catches.
(3)   His (-7) yards receiving in the postseason is the 5th lowest of all-time, trailing a linebacker (Rocky Boiman), a tackle (Al Jamison), and 2 quarterbacks (Jim Kelly and Steve McNair). In all, 21 players have fewer than 0 yards receiving in the postseason.
(4)   He was the last tight end named 1st Team AP All-Pro for the AFL.
(5)   18 tight ends were selected in the 1968 draft, only 7 of whom ever appeared in an NFL game. Chosen in the 12th round, Trumpy was the 11th tight end selected. In Round 3, the Lions drafted Hall of Famer Charlie Sanders. Both players spent their entire careers with one team and retired following the 1977 season. Their numbers are as follows:

Name
Games
Receptions
Yards
TDs
Average
Sanders
128
336
4817
31
14.3
Trumpy
128
298
4600
35
15.4

Wesley Walls
A linebacker in college, Walls was considered a tight end project when he came out of Mississippi. Selected in the 2nd round of the 1989 NFL Draft by San Francisco, Walls arrived in time to win a Super Bowl ring his rookie season. Unfortunately for him, he also arrived just as Brent Jones began to develop into one of the league’s top tight ends. “All the attention went away from ‘let’s develop Wesley Walls into this good tight end,’ into ‘we got a good tight end.’”[42] In the 2nd game of the 1991 season, Jones went down with a torn knee ligament. Rather than turn to Walls, the 49ers inserted Jamie Williams into the starting lineup. Walls then missed all of the 1992 to reconstructive shoulder surgery. Following a 1993 season again shortened by injuries, Walls left San Francisco as an unrestricted free agent and signed with the New Orleans Saints. In 5 seasons as a 49er, Walls caught 11 passes.


His first season in New Orleans he caught 38 passes for 406 yards, despite splitting time with Irv Smith. His second season he set a team record for receptions with 57, but he continued to share time with Smith. As a result, despite a comparable contract offer from the Saints, Walls signed with the Carolina Panthers. Finally playing full-time, Walls blossomed into the top tight end in the NFC, earning Pro Bowl honors each of the next 4 seasons. After missing half of 2000 to a torn ACL, Walls returned to form in 2001, earning his 5th trip to Hawaii. Walls spent one more injury-plagued season in Carolina before moving onto a lackluster season in Green Bay in which he served as a backup to Bubba Franks. Walls retired with 450 catches, 5,291 yards, and 54 touchdowns. He ranks third on Carolina’s career list for receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns (behind Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad).

Jason Witten
Witten’s rank among tight ends:
2nd in receptions (Gonzalez)
3rd in receiving yards (Gonzalez and Sharpe)
5th in yards/game (Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Winslow, Gates, tied with Gonzalez)
Tied for 1st for most 1,000 yard seasons (Gonzalez)
2nd to Gonzalez in most 70-catch, 80-catch, and 90-catch seasons

Frank Wycheck
Best known for his role in the Music City Miracle, Wycheck is one of 9 tight ends in the 500 reception club, though his 5,126 receiving yards and 28 touchdowns both rank last among the 9 members. His 10.15 yards/catch is the lowest among all tight ends with 400 catches, and only Pete Metzelaars and his 9.62 yard average rank lower among tight ends with 300+ catches. Nonetheless, Wycheck was a solid tight end who had a respectable career, which was difficult to predict based on how he entered the League.

Despite leaving as the Terrapins’ all-time leading receiver, Wycheck had a rocky career at the University of Maryland. As a redshirt freshman, Wycheck set the Maryland single-game and single-season reception records (behind the passing of Scott Zolak) as an H-back and helped lead the Terrapins to the Poulan Weedeater Independence Bowl. His sophomore season, the team slipped to 2-9 and head coach Joe Krivak was fired. Despite catching an ACC-record 103 passes for 947 yards his first two seasons, Wycheck had to find a new position, as new coach Mark Duffner installed the run-and-shoot, which used neither a tight end nor an H-back. Early in the season, Wycheck was used mostly in goal-line situations. As the season progressed, Wycheck saw more action as a running back. He twice rushed for 100 yards in the last 3 games, including 162 in the season finale. But he was a tight end, not a running back, so he chose to forego his senior season and enter the draft. He was selected in the 6th Round by the Redskins. He saw little action in 2 seasons in Washington, and eventually asked for, and received, his release.

He signed with the Houston Oilers and in his first season with the club he caught 40 passes for 471 yards. He started every game the next 6 seasons, and didn’t catch fewer than 53 passes. He posted 5 consecutive seasons with at least 60 catches, a feat matched or exceeded by only Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Shannon Sharpe, Antonio Gates, and Ben Coates. He earned 3 trips to the Pro Bowl and was named 2nd Team All-Pro in 2000. He retired following the 2003 season.

Charle Young
A 1st Round Pick out of USC by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1973, Charle Young burst onto the scene with 55 catches for 854 yards, both totals ranking 4th in the NFL. He was named the UPI NFC Rookie of the Year[43], earned a trip to the Pro Bowl, and became the first rookie tight end to be named 1st Team All-Pro.[44] He followed that up with an NFC-leading 63 catches for 696 yards and another Pro Bowl selection. In four seasons with the Eagles, Young caught 197 passes as part of Roman Gabriel’s “Fire High Gang.” Young, standing 6’4”, along with 6’8” Harold Carmichael and 6’3” Don Zimmerman, were given this moniker because, as the story goes, whenever Gabriel called a passing play, one of them would say, “Fire high, baby.”[45]

Young was named a Pro Bowler in each of his first 3 seasons, but the lack of team success led to the firing of head coach Mike McCormack. With the hiring of Dick Vermeil came an offensive change. 1976 was Young’s least productive season. Not happy with his new role and the direction the franchise was headed, Young said, “I want to play for a warm weather franchise…I’d like to play on natural turf and I’d like to be with a contender.”[46] Young had played out his option in 1976 but he still “belonged” to the Eagles. The Eagles traded first refusal rights to Young to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for the first refusal rights to quarterback Ron Jaworski. Since neither player had contracts, the trade meant that if they were offered contracts by other teams, the Rams (Young) and Eagles (Jaworski) had first priority to match the contract offer or be compensated.

Young signed with the Rams which would best be described as a situation of “be careful what you wish for.” In 3 seasons with the Rams, Young was stuck as a backup to Terry Nelson in the ball-control offense of head coach Chuck Knox, nicknamed “Ground Chuck.” He totaled only 36 catches for 392 yards.


But in 1980 his career was revived by Bill Walsh, who utilized Young in the 49ers West Coast Offense. He caught 29 passes for 325 yards in 1980, and the following season he collected 37 receptions for 400 yards and provided solid blocking in helping San Francisco win its first Super Bowl. After the strike-shortened 1982 season, Young joined the Seahawks, where he spent 3 seasons before retiring after the 1985 season.

In 13 NFL seasons, Young caught 418 passes for 5106 yards and 27 touchdowns.

Final Verdict
In reviewing the above list, clearly Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates will be the next two tight ends enshrined in Canton, barring a Seniors Candidate in the meantime. Gonzalez, much like Jerry Rice has done for receivers, probably will make it even more difficult for tight ends in the future. Gonzalez’ numbers may never be matched. And all tight ends will ultimately be compared to him, which is unfair for many tight ends that excel at blocking.

Additionally, Gonzalez’ longevity is unprecedented, with 270 games played and 253 starts. Tight end is a position with a high attrition rate. Most of the players listed above had very high peaks, but due to the physical demands of the position, were unable to sustain the level of performance they had set. Gonzalez has set the bar so high, that no one may be able to come near it.

Furthermore, since a tight end’s career is so short, they need to find the perfect offense for their skill set. Most of the men above experienced a change in quarterback, offensive scheme, or team during their careers, which greatly affected their production, making it that much more difficult for them to make a Hall of Fame argument.

In the end, there is room for more tight ends, but not a lot. It is very difficult to separate most of the candidates. Many of the tight ends undoubtedly will ultimately end up as topics for discussion for the Seniors Committee, with Jerry Smith (touchdowns), Pete Retzlaff (performance at 2 positions), Mark Bavaro (reputation), and Jay Novacek (contribution to 3 Super Bowl teams) as the 4 most likely selections, as they each have one additional argument to separate them from the group.

It is a shame only one tight end appeared on this year’s preliminary ballot, as most of these men had careers worth remembering.


[1] Gosselin, Rick. “Gosselin: It’s Tough for Tight Ends to Get to Canton.” Dallas Morning News. 4 Nov. 2012. Online. Available at http://cowboysblog.dallasnews.com/2012/11/gosselin-its-tough-for-tight-ends-to-get-to-canton.html/
[2] Zimmerman, Paul. A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1971. Page 95.
[3] Reid, Ron. “To Be Tight, You’ve Got to Be Loose.” Sports Illustrated. 4 Sept. 1978: 42-43. Print.
[4] Id. at 43.
[5] Id. at 46.
[6] Serby, Steve. “Serby’s Special Sunday Q&A with Hall-of-Fame-Bound Coach…Bill Parcells.” New York Post. 28 July 2013: Sports 86. Print.
[7] “Super Bowl XXI: The Only True Tight End.” New York Times. 25 Jan. 1987. Online. Available at www.nytimes.com/1987/01/25/sports/super-bowl-xxi-the-only-true-tight-end.html
[8] Zimmerman, Paul. “A Giant Step Forward.” Sports Illustrated. 15 Dec. 1986: 28. Print.
[9] Toscano, Jimmy. “Bill Belichick has and always will be infatuated with tight end position.” Metro-Boston (MA). 12 Sept. 2012. Online. Available at http://www.metro.us/boston/lifestyle/2012/09/12/bill-belichick-has-and-always-will-be-infatuated-with-tight-end-position/.
[10] Zimmerman, Paul. “Early call for the Hall.” Sports Illustrated. 8 Nov. 2007. Online. Available at http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2007/writers/dr_z/11/07/hof/1.html.
[11] Maule, Tex. “Joe Bites the Astrodust.” Sports Illustrated. 9 Oct. 1972: 38. Print.
[12] The feat has been achieved 13 times, as Homer Jones accomplished it twice. The other men on the list are Ken Kavanaugh, Eddie Kennison, James Lofton, James Scott, Webster Slaughter, Bill Groman, Jerry Butler, Lee Evans, John Gilliam, Torry Holt, and John Taylor.
[13] Gonzalez (12), Witten (7), Gates (5), Sharpe (5), Christensen (4), Kellen Winslow, Jr. (4), and Kellen Winslow, Sr. (3) are the others.
[14] Falcons safety Keion Carpenter. King, Peter. “Spotlight.” Sports Illustrated. 25 July 2005. Online. Available at http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1105634/index.htm.  
[15] Murphy, Austin. “The Transformative Power of Tony Gonzalez.” Sports Illustrated. 3 Aug. 2009. Online. Available at http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1158403/index.htm.
[16] Fennelly, Martin. “Permanent honor fitting for Giles.” Tampa Tribune. 4 Dec. 2011 Sports 1. Print.
[17] The ninth round pick (#234 overall) was used to select Todd Irvin, an offensive tackle out of the University of Mississippi.
[18] King, Peter. “The Beginning of the End.” Sports Illustrated. 14 Oct. 1991: 71. Print.
[19] Id. at 73.
[20] Hubbard, Steve. “Green Last No. 1 Holdout, but He Says He’s Not Going to Give In.” Pittsburgh Post Gazette (PA). 5 Sept. 1990: C1. Print.
[21] Musselman, Ron. “Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Joe Walton normally is a quiet person.” USA Today. 15 Aug. 1991.
[22] “Green hopes Steelers keep him in focus.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA). 17 July 1992: A9. Print.
[23] Associated Press. “Steelers’ Green Wants his Past Forgotten.” San Francisco Chronicle. 12 June 1993: D8. Print.
[24] Bouchette, Ed. “Contract Impasse Embitters Green; Steelers Tight End Upset.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA). 22 Aug.  1994: D1. Print.
[25] Cole, Jason. “Courting Begins: Green Impressed—Dolphins entertain Pro Bowl TE.” Sun-Sentinel. 2 Feb. 1995: 6C. Print.
[26] Moffett, Dan. “Humiliation Signals Time for a Change.” The Palm Beach Post. 31 Dec. 1995: 1C. Print.
[27] Steigerwald, John. “Bold yeller fans in full voice can affect a playoff game’s outcome.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 6 Jan. 1996: B8. Print.
[28] Wyche, Steve. “Predominant or Preempted?” Miami Herald. 13 July 1996: 1D. Print.
[29] Rabinowitz, Bill. “Green: No end in sight, a confidant Eric Green is listed behind Brian Kinchen on the depth chart.” York Daily Record (PA). 24 July 1997: C3. Print.
[30] Preston, Mike. “New captain of a tight ship.” The Baltimore Sun (MD). 30 July 1998: 1D. Print.
[31] Stellino, Vito. “Offense set to get green light. Marchibroda says return of tight end will help alleviate scoring problems.” The Baltimore Sun. 27 Oct. 1998: 4D. Print.
[32] St. John, Allen. “They Do It My Way.” New York Times Book Reviews. 22 Oct. 2000: 1889.
[33] Quoting Rodney Holman. Blackledge, Steve. “Media Snubs Don’t Faze Holman—Bengals Tight End Prefers Hearing Accolades from Players.” Columbus Dispatch (OH). 9 Aug. 1991: 6E. Print.
[34] Quoting Bengals tight end coach Bill “Tiger” Johnson at Id.
[35] Quoting Coach Jim Hanifan. World-Herald Press Services. “He’s a Big, Big Man—Novacek Impresses Cards’ Coach.” Omaha World-Herald (NE). 28 July 1985: Sports.
[36] Quoting Troy Aikman. Woody, Paul. “Novacek Tough Number—Overlooked, Not Underappreciated.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. 25 Jan. 1996: C1. Print.
[37] The complete list is comprised of the following Hall of Famers: Jim Brown, John Hannah, Bruce Matthews, Mike Munchak, Jonathan Ogden, Pete Pihos, Barry Sanders, Lee Roy Selmon, Billy Shaw, Mike Singletary, Roger Staubach, and Dwight Stephenson; the following soon-to-be Hall of Famers: Walter Jones and Will Shields; and Jim David, Cliff Harris, Jay Novacek, and Rich Saul.
[38] Gonzalez, Witten, Gates, Shockey, and Heath Miller are the others.
[39] Quoting Former teammate Rickie Harris. Didinger, Ray. “All-Pro’s Last Fight Aids Victim Smith Stoic to the End.” Philadelphia Daily News. 29 Oct. 1986: 116. Print.
[40] Quarterback Sonny Jurgensen at Id.
[41] Id.
[42] Swan, Gary. “Walls Sports New Attitude—Tight end puts disappointments behind him, tries to relax more.” San Francisco Chronicle. 6 Aug. 1992: C9. Print.
[43] Chuck Foreman won the other offensive Rookie of the Year awards that season.
[44] Keith Jackson (1988) and Jeremy Shockey (2002) have since joined this group.
[45] Marshall, Joe. “National East.” Sports Illustrated. 16 Sept. 1974: 66. Print.
[46] “Eagles get Jaworski for Young.” Lebanon Daily News. 10 Mar. 1977: 45. Print.

1 comment:

  1. By not including Jason Witten as one of the NEXT THREE TEs to be going into the Hall, you are clearly showing anti-Cowboys bias....cuz Witten is just as much of a lock as Gates.

    ReplyDelete