NFC South: Lance Alworth

GonzalezAP Photo/John AmisIs Tony Gonzalez, who holds nearly every tight end record, a first-ballot Hall of Famer?
When it comes to Tony Gonzalez the question isn’t if he’ll get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There’s no doubt the man with the best tight end statistics in just about every category that can be measured will be selected.

The question is, when will it happen?

Common sense would lead you to believe Gonzalez will retire from the Atlanta Falcons and, five years later, he’ll get in on the first ballot. But recent history tells us that common sense may not apply when it comes to putting tight ends in the Hall of Fame, especially on the first ballot. Tight end is a unique position, and voters obviously view it that way.

Take a look at this list of Hall of Famers, sorted by position. You’ll see that kickers are the only group with less representation than tight ends. There are more than double the amount of “contributors’’ than there are tight ends in the Hall of Fame. Same for coaches.

There are currently just seven tight ends in the Hall of Fame. That number will increase to eight later this summer when Shannon Sharpe is inducted. The mere mention of Sharpe’s name and Hall of Fame voting shows that it’s not a slam-dunk that Gonzalez will go in on the first ballot.

A few years back, Sharpe was in pretty much the same spot Gonzalez will be in. Sharpe retired in 2003 as the holder of virtually every all-time record for tight ends. He also had three Super Bowl rings.

When Sharpe was first eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2009, he was passed over. The same thing happened in 2010. There’s a school of thought that some Hall of Fame voters wanted to make Sharpe wait for a couple of years, simply because he was a tight end.

"When Shannon retired, he was the most prolific tight end in all the categories, and if that's not a Hall of Famer, then I'm trying to figure out what the definition of the Hall of Fame is," Hall of Fame defensive back Rod Woodson said after Sharpe came up short in his second year of eligibility. "There hasn't been a tight end ever on the first ballot, but this was his second, so I was thinking and hoping that they would do the right thing.’’

[+] EnlargeShannon Sharpe
Mark J. Rebilas/US PRESSWIREThe Hall of Fame voters made Shannon Sharpe -- arguably the game's best tight end before Tony Gonzalez -- wait to earn induction into Canton.
I’ll make a case right now that the right thing to do with Gonzalez when the time comes is to put him in on the first ballot. Anything else would be flat-out wrong.

Gonzalez is simply the best tight end ever. Sharpe might have held that title for a while. But, within a few of years of Sharpe’s retirement, Gonzalez started breaking all of his records. The two aren’t even close in most statistical categories anymore. Gonzalez has 12,463 receiving yards. That’s almost 2,403 more than Sharpe. Gonzalez has 1,069 career receptions. That’s 254 more than Sharpe.

The gap is only going to get bigger. At 35, Gonzalez may not be what he was in his prime as he was back in 2004 with Kansas City when he set a single-season record for catches by a tight end with 102. But in an Atlanta offense that’s already good and could be even better with the addition of rookie Julio Jones, Gonzalez remains an important role player.

Let’s just say Gonzalez has another season something like last year, when he caught 70 passes for 656 yards and six touchdowns. Anything close to that, and he adds another layer of insulation between his records and what Sharpe did.

Anything close to last year and Gonzalez will have numbers that basically double what Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow did. With the San Diego Chargers back in the 1980s, Winslow revolutionized the tight end position. Tight ends used to be pretty much just blockers, but Winslow made catching passes part of the job description.

In other words, Winslow changed the game and the position. If you do that, you should be a Hall of Famer. Gonzalez has done that. He’s left Winslow and Sharpe far behind in the argument about the greatest tight end ever.

Gonzalez is the guy who opened the door for a generation of former basketball players to start becoming as important as wide receivers in many offenses. That brings us to another point about Gonzalez and why he should go in on the first ballot.

He’s a tight end, but he’s got numbers that are just as good as some Hall of Fame wide receivers. Gonzalez has more receiving yards than guys like Charlie Joiner, Don Maynard, Michael Irvin and Lance Alworth.

Yeah, those guys played in different generations when the league wasn’t as geared toward the passing game. But Gonzalez created a whole new generation of tight ends. Yeah, it sometimes takes too long even for wide receivers to get into the Hall of Fame. Guys like Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were placed on a waiting list for about two decades and there’s a backlog still sitting there.

But Gonzalez shouldn’t have to wait just because he’s a tight end. Gonzalez currently is No. 6 all-time with 1,069 receptions. The only guys ahead of him are Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison, Cris Carter, Tim Brown and Terrell Owens.

If Gonzalez catches 34 more passes, he’ll move up to No. 2. He’ll be behind only Rice, which says a lot. When Rice was first eligible for the Hall of Fame, voters skipped over the usual ritual of making wide receivers wait. That’s because there was a universal agreement that Rice was the best wide receiver ever to play the game.

There's universal agreement Gonzalez is the best tight end ever to play the game, and he deserves the same treatment.

There’s one other argument that could be used against Gonzalez. He’s never played on a Super Bowl champion. He’s never even gone deep into the postseason. For the longest time, a lot of Hall of Fame voters seemed to think a Super Bowl ring was a requirement for selection.

That idea seems to have faded some in recent years. But there is one way Gonzalez can make sure that’s not an issue. He can go out and help the Falcons win a Super Bowl this season. Then, he could go out in a blaze of glory or he could even stick around and pad his résumé for another year or two.

But Gonzalez shouldn’t have to worry about adding much more to his résumé. He’s already done enough to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

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