The Pro Football Hall of Fame will formally welcome its Class of 2019 on Saturday. This week, Yahoo Sports is highlighting memorable moments for each member of the eight-man class, leading up to the big ceremony.
Tony Gonzalez’s records are being taken from him, one by one.
Zach Ertz now holds the record for most receptions in a season by a tight end. Antonio Gates became the career leader for touchdowns by a tight end. Gonzalez’s record of 1,000-yard seasons by a tight end was matched by Rob Gronkowski and Jason Witten, and Travis Kelce will probably pass him in a couple years.
But it’s worth mentioning that without Gonzalez, maybe none of those other tight ends would have been utilized in ways that allowed them to surpass his records.
Gonzalez wasn’t the first tight end to be used mostly as a big receiver instead of in a static position next to the offensive tackle. Kellen Winslow did that with the then-San Diego Chargers. But Gonzalez’s success over 17 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons seemed to show all coaches the light. When you see Kelce lined up outside as a receiver this season or Ertz lined up in the slot, know that Gonzalez led a revolution in many ways.
Tony Gonzalez was one of a kind
Gonzalez was a unique athlete. He played power forward for Cal, and averaged more than 6 points and 4 rebounds a game. Other football stars had played basketball in college, but after Gonzalez did it teams were on the lookout for the next big basketball player who could use post-up skills and soft hands at the tight end position. Without Gonzalez, we might not have had Gates or Jimmy Graham.
Gonzalez was the 13th pick of the 1997 draft and while he would end up being a historical outlier, he looked like a typical young tight end through his first two seasons. He wasn’t in danger of being a bust, but through two seasons he had 989 yards and four touchdowns in 32 games. There were some promising moments in those first two years, but nothing that led anyone to believe they were watching someone who would become arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history.
In 1999, Gonzalez started his march toward Canton.
Gonzalez made a record 14 Pro Bowls
In Gonzalez’s third season, he made his first Pro Bowl. That became a familiar thing for Gonzalez. He made 14 Pro Bowls, which is tied for the NFL record. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Merlin Olsen and Bruce Matthews are the only others to make it 14 times. In 1999 Gonzalez was also named a first-team All-Pro, an honor he’d receive six times.
It wasn’t just the numbers for Gonzalez, though those were spectacular too. It was watching someone redefine a position. Like Winslow before him, Gonzalez was the antithesis of the old-school in-line blocking tight end. While Gonzalez’s blocking did improve — he was a key part of Priest Holmes rushing for 48 touchdowns in 2002-03 — he was a fluid athlete at a position that had generally preferred brute force. He was big but could run like a gazelle. He had great leaping ability in the red zone, another callback to his basketball days. His hands were soft. And the Chiefs were creative. We’re used to many NFL teams having a “chess piece” tight end who can split out wide or line up in the slot. That wasn’t the norm as the Chiefs used Gonzalez all around the formation.
“Put him on a single-receiver side, move the other wide receivers to the other side of the field, that way we’d have a one-on-one matchup with a linebacker or a strong safety,” said former Chiefs quarterback Trent Green on an NFL Films special naming Gonzalez the 45th best player in NFL history. ”His skill set was so different than any other tight end. When you look at how we utilized him as a weapon, there’s a lot of tight ends in the game today that are doing those things we first started with Tony.”
Is Gonzalez the GOAT?
Gonzalez will take his rightful place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this week. But is he the greatest tight end of all time?
Many would say yes. Only eight other tight ends are in the Hall of Fame, and Gonzalez is the first one to get in during his first year of eligibility. He is second all-time among all players with 1,325 receptions and fifth all-time with 15,127 receiving yards. That’s astonishing from a tight end. Gonzalez’s longevity is unmatched. He played 17 seasons and missed only two games. In 2013, at 37 years old, he had 83 catches, 859 yards and eight touchdowns. He made the Pro Bowl. He could have kept playing, but retired while he was still one of the best tight ends in football. It’s possible you don’t instantly recall a single great play or moment from Gonzalez’s career. He was a part of just one playoff win, and that came in his 16th NFL season (of course, Gonzalez’s 19-yard catch with 13 seconds left set up a game-winning 49-yard field goal for the Falcons). When you think of Gonzalez, it’s probably a montage of incredible contested catches in the end zone, followed by him slam dunking the ball over the goal post in celebration.
If we’re putting more weight on a dominant prime, Gronkowski might be the answer as the greatest ever. Gronk was a physical force who was unstoppable at his peak. Injuries didn’t allow him to have Gonzalez’s long career. Who you pick as the greatest tight end ever might come down to whether you prefer an unmatched peak or greatness over a longer period of time.
Before long, someone else will emerge in that conversation. It might be Kelce, Ertz, George Kittle or someone who hasn’t made the NFL yet. Gonzalez’s records will eventually fall as more tight ends are used as the focal point of NFL offenses. Even if Gonzalez is surpassed, there won’t be any argument that he was a pioneer.
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