The 44 members of the football media who gather annually on the day before the Super Bowl to vote on a new class of Pro Football Hall of Famers—I'm one of the selectors—seem to have trouble with a few positions. Safety is one. No pure safety who has entered the league since 1975 has made the Hall. (Ronnie Lott, a sometime corner, doesn't count.) At wide receiver the burgeoning numbers mystify us. In: John Stallworth, with 537 career catches one generation ago. Not in: Cris Carter, a rookie during Stallworth's last year ('87), who finished with 1,101 catches. And forget off-the-field contributors. Ed Sabol founded and developed legend-manufacturing NFL Films and can't get a sniff.
Then we come to tight ends. The ice has broken there, but to what degree? In the first 25 Hall of Fame classes, not one tight end was enshrined in Canton. In the next 20 classes, from 1988 to 2007, seven tight ends were elected, beginning with Mike Ditka in '88. That's where we stand now. But I'm still not sure we voters know what to do with the position. It's one of those jobs with multiple parts—blocker, receiver—that's so hard to judge from one era to the next.
The fact that Shannon Sharpe has been shut out in his first two years of eligibility shows the difficulty a tight end faces. When Sharpe retired after the 2003 season, his credentials were peerless: He had 153 more catches and 2,080 more receiving yards than any other tight end in history, and the best postseason record at the position. In his prime with Denver and Baltimore, Sharpe was part of 12 straight postseason wins, including three Super Bowls. When I met with another alltime tight end, Tony Gonzalez, two months ago at Falcons camp, he was stunned that Sharpe hadn't been voted into the Hall, saying in effect that if Sharpe was struggling to get in, what would happen with his own candidacy?
That's the trouble with tight end, as I see it. It's evolving before our very eyes. What is the position, really? The Colts often deploy Dallas Clark as a slot receiver. The Chargers use Antonio Gates part-time as an in-line blocker but more often as a downfield receiving threat. The Giants are more in the classic tight end vein, with Kevin Boss (when healthy) working as a blocker first and an intermediate receiver second. The Patriots are transitioning from the traditional model in Ben Watson to the athletic downfield tight end in Aaron Hernandez after getting the Florida product as a fourth-round steal this year.
I can't read the minds of my cloistered Hall-selector peers. But I think we all fear setting the bar at a certain level, then having three or four players from a subsequent era jump over it. Seven years after Sharpe retired, Gonzalez is dwarfing his numbers. Gates, 30, might be next; he's 305 catches behind Sharpe, playing in an offense that will feed him the ball 80 times a year as long as he's healthy. So Sharpe could have three or four tight ends who've surpassed his numbers by 2015.
But as for Sharpe's candidacy in February 2011, I'd say he has a better chance than any of the wide receivers who are eligible, because the Cris Carter--Andre Reed--Tim Brown logjam could continue to keep all of them out. If Sharpe doesn't make it, I won't blame the strong class of newcomers (led by Deion Sanders and Marshall Faulk). I'll walk out of the room thinking it's the exploding-numbers game—and our continuing struggle to define just what a tight end is.