So I finally sit down to watch the "Top Ten Tight Ends of All-Time" on the NFL Network, which has been airing over the last month. Full disclosure: I am from Kansas City and have watched Gonzalez his whole career. He is one of my all-time favorite players. He's a great team player and team leader, he practices hard, he sacrifices for the team, he blocks well in the running game, can run and make plays in the open field, and catches touchdown passes and makes tough catches in traffic. I settle into a comfortable spot on the couch, the kids are napping, and I have a few moments to bask in the glory that will be Tony Gonzalez appearing somewhere at the top of this list. It's like the NFL Draft, my team may not be drafting for a while, and I'm comfortable knowing this, but I am going to enjoy the lead up.
The list leads off with Antonio Gates is Number 10. Okay, he's been pretty dominant recently, but we still do not know where his career will end up. Probably a little low, but debateable.
Number 9 is Mark Bavaro. Interesting. By career numbers probably shouldn't be on this list, but again, debateable.
Number 8 is . . . Tony Gonzalez? What? My day is ruined. Am I crazy for having thought Gonzalez would be considered one of the best of all-time? He holds the tight end records for career receptions and touchdowns, and will pass Shannon Sharpe for most yards early next year. It's not like he is sticking around past his prime to just pad stats either. He was second team all-NFL in 2007, and played in a pro bowl for the ninth straight season (another tight end record). After this shock to the system, I can't even listen to what they are saying on the show, I'm so amazed.
So I get up and go to the laptop, pull up this website called pro-football-reference.com, and start comparing some numbers. And I am getting even madder. Bavaro and Gonzalez next to each other? To me, this is like saying Terrell Davis should be next to Walter Payton and Jim Brown on the all-time running back list.
Next up at #7 is Dave Casper. My blood pressure improves just a little bit. Casper had a nice career and was the dominant tight end of the late 1970's. Well-deserved on this list, just not in front of Gonzalez. The brief improvement in mood is immediately reversed by the revelation of Jackie Smith at #6. Talk about revisionist history. Why not just put Jay Novacek in front of Gonzalez instead? You know how many times Smith was acknowledged as the best tight end in the league by all-pro voting? The same number as me. Gonzalez--five times. You would have to engage in some serious "I walked to school uphill both ways, and every player was so much better back in my day" thinking to justify this ranking of Smith ahead of Gonzalez. Jackie Smith was a good tight end and had a nice long career, but he certainly was no Tony Gonzalez.
The remaining top five were (in order) Ozzie Newsome, Shannon Sharpe, Mike Ditka, Kellen Winslow, and John Mackey. I could continue to complain and rant, but let's get to some objective analysis first. Probably the best place to start, similar to what I talked about in comparing Jackie Smith to Gonzalez, is how the tight end was perceived at the time he was playing. Tight end is a unique position, in the sense that we have some statistics and can see how many receptions and touchdowns the tight end scored. But it also entails other things that aren't measured by statistics directly, such as how the tight end affected the game plan, and how good or bad of a blocker he was for the running game--all things that are part of the job description. Also, I wasn't around to see Ditka, Mackey, Smith, or Casper, and I have some vague memories of Winslow in the 1981 playoff game against the Dolphins.
So I'm not going to rely on my own opinions. And I'm surely not going to rely on the opinions of someone thirty years after the fact, particularly about a former teammate or contemporary that they are biased towards, as absence may tend to make the heart grow fonder. No, I'm going to rely on what writers and other people said about each tight end at the time they were playing, as represented by all-pro voting. This is especially important because it allows us to see how a tight end was perceived, beyond his raw numbers, when he was playing.
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