Tony Gonzalez is still catching touchdown passes.
He caught touchdown No. 97 on Monday night. When the referee threw both of his arms to the sky in agreement, Gonzalez already knew where he was headed next.
He turned to his weekly jumping barometer, the bright yellow goalpost, and dunked the pigskin through the uprights with a youthful exuberance.
This routine isn't new for Gonzalez. He's taken his dunking tour across 32 stadiums. He called the goalposts in Kansas City home for over a decade while becoming the cornerstone of the franchise.
“Tony G” then switched gears to Atlanta, where he continued to drink the fountain of youth while in search of his first championship.
At 35 years old, though, has the greatest tight end of the modern era done enough to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer?
There are only eight tight ends in the Hall of Fame; the HOF committee has awarded more busts to “contributors” than to the tight end position.
As if the odds weren’t tough enough, Shannon Sharpe, who held most of the tight end records before Gonzalez broke them, needed three tries to get into Canton.
Tight End or Pass Catcher?
In order to delve into this topic, the voters must clarify to whom they are comparing Gonzalez. Specifically, it needs to be made clear whether tight ends should be recognized as their own position or grouped with wide receivers in a hybrid pass-catcher group.
The ideology that Gonzalez belongs with the receivers stems from his outrageous numbers at his position.
Gonzalez has benefited statistically as football has shifted toward an aerial game with less emphasis on “three yards and a cloud of dust”.
Mike Ditka and Ozzie Newsome didn’t have the spread or the no-huddle offense and one-on-one matchups with cornerbacks on the goal line. They spent two-thirds of their snaps putting their hat on a defender and working in the trenches.
If Gonzalez aligns with the wideouts, his chances for a first ballot entry become slim.
Wide receiver greats Cris Carter and Tim Brown are both still not in the Hall after their third and fifth years of eligibility, respectively. They both possess gaudy numbers in their own right (higher receiving yard totals than Gonzalez), but their Canton bids have been stymied by an excess of eligible receivers who split their potential votes.
Does Tony Gonzalez belong in that class? We’re talking about a player who caught 100 balls one season and blocked for Priest Holmes’ single-season rushing touchdown record in another.
If Antonio Gates or Jimmy Graham receive HOF consideration (too early to tell), they’ll have to match up alongside the great receivers of their era because they caught passes significantly more than they protected the quarterback.
The Case for Gonzalez
Gonzalez’s superb career numbers and longevity, ultimately, may be able to convince first-ballet voters to induct a tight end.
For a player who has to split duties both blocking and pass-catching, Gonzalez hangs tough even with the wideouts.
For starters, he is second all-time in receptions, only behind first-ballot HOFer Jerry Rice. He’s currently three touchdowns away from 100, a career mark that has been earned only by seven pass catchers.
No. 88 can go on for days. He’s had five seasons of 80-plus receptions, with the most recent being last year, his fifteenth season.
Missing: Playoff Success
Then there’s the notion of playoff success, and how it impacts the way voters remember a HOF candidate. While Gonzalez has been the model of consistency at his position for almost too many years, the intensity of his career can get swept under the rug in the narrative of Super Bowl championships and MVPs.
Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison all played in a Super Bowl. Those three stars came into the league before Gonzalez, yet Harrison is already retired, Owens faces unemployment and Moss is fighting for playing time with the 49ers.
The Big Game, though, has eluded this great tight end, and it may determine how his career is ultimately remembered: The best tight end ever, but he never played in a Super Bowl.
It's a sad reality of sports history.
This writer’s inclined to get Gonzalez in on the first ballot. The best player ever at a position should always get into the Hall. The hallmark player at a position should have leeway into getting voted in on the first try.
As hard as it is to judge a defensive end against a running back, when the player in question is the unequivocal best in their group, they should be considered over the 24th or so defensive back.
At least, as far as first ballots are concerned.
No pass catcher has played his hand any better. No tight end has been a better ambassador for the game. “Tony G” takes the mantle; he should take a first-ballot bust on his way out as well.
Catching more of those touchdowns will certainly help.