This summer Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said he believed Jason Witten was the best tight end of his generation.
Indeed, Witten has been quite the player for the Cowboys in his 14-year career. He’s the franchise’s all-time leading receiver with 1,089 career catches. Only six players in NFL history at any position have caught more passes. Witten also needs just 17 more yards to pass Hall of Famer Michael Irvin as the franchise’s all-time leader in yardage. He’ll get that in the season opener against the Giants.
”I don’t think there is any doubt in my mind that he’s a Hall-of-Fame tight end,” Garrett said. ”He’s one of the best tight ends to ever play this game.”
And that’s a very short list.
There are only eight tight ends in the Hall of Fame. Ron Kramer was selected to the NFL’s 50th anniversary team. He has not been enshrined in Canton. Neither has Fred Arbanas, who was selected the tight end on the all-time AFL team. Ben Coates, who was named to the 1990s NFL all-decade team, also is on the outside looking in. Not a one has ever been discussed as a Hall-of-Fame finalist.
The eight tight ends that have been enshrined include the first team NFL all-decade selections from the 1960s (John Mackey), 1970s (Dave Casper), 1980s (Kellen Winslow) and 1990s (Shannon Sharpe). They also include a tight end on the NFL’s 75th anniversary team (Mike Ditka) plus the second-team all-decade selections from the 1970s (Charlie Sanders) and 1980s (Ozzie Newsome). The only other tight end in Canton is Jackie Smith, who played 16 seasons in the 1960s and 1970s.
Does Witten belong in that group? Has he been to his generation what Mackey, Casper, Winslow and Sharpe were to theirs – the best? That’s subject to debate.
Let’s first define the parameters of a “generation.” Witten’s career overlapped that of Tony Gonzalez by 11 seasons. His career has overlapped all 14 seasons of Antonio Gates’ career. And there’s now a seven-season overlap with Rob Gronkowski. Do they all belong in the same generation?
Gonzalez caught more passes (1,325) for more yards (15,127) than any tight end in history. Only Jerry Rice caught more NFL passes and only four players at any position collected more yards through the air. Gonzalez also holds NFL records for his position with 31 career 100-yard games and 14 Pro Bowl appearances. He was named to the NFL’s all-decade first team for the 2000s.
Gates was named to the NFL’s all-decade second team for the 2000s. His 897 catches rank 22nd all-time at all positions and his 11,192 yards rank 33rd. But his 111 touchdown receptions tie him with Gonzalez for the most ever by a tight end. Gates can claim the record for himself on opening day when his Los Angeles Chargers play the Denver Broncos. He also has 21 career 100-yard games and eight Pro Bowl appearances.
Gonzalez became the first tight end in history to catch 100 passes in a single season when he caught 102 for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2004. Witten became the second when he set the position record with 110 receptions in 2012. Witten has been selected to play in 10 Pro Bowls but only has 63 career touchdowns.
Gronkowski has played half as many seasons (seven) as Witten but already has more career touchdowns (68). Gronkowski also set the position record for receiving yards (1,327) and touchdowns (17) in a single season in 2011. He’s averaging 15.0 yards per career catch, Gates 12.5 yards, Gonzalez 11.4 and Witten 10.9. Gronkowski already has 23 100-yard games in his career. Gates and Witten have 21 apiece.
Gonzalez was the first-team All-NFL tight end six times, Gronkowski four, Gates three and Witten two. Gonzalez and Witten have four 1,000-yard seasons apiece, Gates and Gronkowski two apiece. Gronkowski has caught 10-or-more touchdown passes in five of his seven seasons, Gates in four of his seasons and Gonzalez three. Witten has never had a double-digit touchdown season.
The Hall of Fame selection committee likes all-decade selections. Through the year 2000, 71.2 percent of the all-decade position players have been enshrined in Canton. Witten has never made an all-decade team, although he and Gronkowski loom as favorites for the 2010 all-decade team. Smith is the only Hall of Fame tight end who failed to make an all-decade team.
The selection committee also likes champions. Sixty-five percent of all the players in Canton won a title. Gates, Gonzalez and Witten all lack championship rings. Gronkowski has two.
Without question, all four of these tight ends have shown themselves statistically to be Hall-of-Fame caliber and worthy of Canton. But does a selection committee that has historically been reluctant to enshrine tight ends suddenly elect four of them from the same era? This committee made Sanders wait 25 years for his bust, Mackey 15 years, Casper 13 and Ditka and Smith 12 apiece.
Gonzalez is eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2019. The other three are all still active, so the clock on their five-year waiting periods has not started ticking yet. Then and only then will we have answer to who was the best tight end of his generation.