Named after modern legend Tony Gonzalez, the Gonzo Award is given annually to the league’s top tight end. The position itself doesn’t go back as far as other fantasy positions, and I decided not to give any awards prior to 1960, when both the NFL and the AFL rostered a sufficient number of players fitting the position’s description to merit having the Gonzo Award. Today, the most important tight ends are receivers first, and blocking ability is just an added bonus. In the incipient stages of the position, professional football was much more focused on the running game, and the expectation of tight ends was to be blockers who could also catch when called upon. Because of the evolving requirements of the position, my criteria for awarding postseason honors had to match the preferences of the era. It can be difficult to be inundated with modern football and avoid applying 2018 perspectives to 1970s players. It’s sort of like trying to put the brilliance of Citizen Kane into proper context after growing up enjoying the cinematic landscape it helped create. I tried my best to judge the players by the standards of their respective eras and dole out awards accordingly.
Gonzo Award Winners
The table below lists every Gonzo winner from 1960 to 2017. Read it thus: In 1960, playing in the NFL, Jim Gibbons of the Detroit Lions won his first Gonzo Award.
|1960||NFL||Jim Gibbons||Detroit Lions||1|
|1960||AFL||John Carson||Houston Oilers||1|
|1961||NFL||Mike Ditka||Chicago Bears||1|
|1961||AFL||Doug Asad||Oakland Raiders||1|
|1962||NFL||Mike Ditka||Chicago Bears||2|
|1962||AFL||Dave Kocourek||San Diego Chargers||1|
|1963||NFL||Mike Ditka||Chicago Bears||3|
|1963||AFL||Bob McLeod||Houston Oilers||1|
|1964||NFL||Mike Ditka||Chicago Bears||4|
|1964||AFL||Fred Arbanas||Kansas City Chiefs||1|
|1965||NFL||Pete Retzlaff||Philadelphia Eagles||1|
|1965||AFL||Willie Frazier||Houston Oilers||1|
|1966||NFL||John Mackey||Baltimore Colts||1|
|1966||AFL||Al Denson||Denver Broncos||1|
|1967||NFL||Jackie Smith||St. Louis Cardinals||1|
|1967||AFL||Willie Frazier||San Diego Chargers||2|
|1968||NFL||Milt Morin||Cleveland Browns||1|
|1968||AFL||Jim Whalen||Boston Patriots||1|
|1969||AFL||Bob Trumpy||Cincinnati Bengals||1|
|1970||NFL||Jim Mitchell||Atlanta Falcons||1|
|1971||NFL||Bob Tucker||New York Giants||1|
|1972||NFL||Rich Caster||New York Jets||1|
|1973||NFL||Charle Young||Philadelphia Eagles||1|
|1974||NFL||Rich Caster||New York Jets||2|
|1975||NFL||Rich Caster||New York Jets||3|
|1976||NFL||Dave Casper||Oakland Raiders||1|
|1977||NFL||Walter White||Kansas City Chiefs||1|
|1978||NFL||Dave Casper||Oakland Raiders||2|
|1979||NFL||Ozzie Newsome||Cleveland Browns||1|
|1980||NFL||Kellen Winslow||San Diego Chargers||1|
|1981||NFL||Kellen Winslow||San Diego Chargers||2|
|1982||NFL||Kellen Winslow||San Diego Chargers||3|
|1983||NFL||Todd Christensen||Los Angeles Raiders||1|
|1984||NFL||Todd Christensen||Los Angeles Raiders||2|
|1985||NFL||Todd Christensen||Los Angeles Raiders||3|
|1986||NFL||Todd Christensen||Los Angeles Raiders||4|
|1987||NFL||Mark Bavaro||New York Giants||1|
|1988||NFL||Keith Jackson||Philadelphia Eagles||1|
|1989||NFL||Rodney Holman||Cincinnati Bengals||1|
|1990||NFL||Brent Jones||San Francisco 49ers||1|
|1991||NFL||Marv Cook||New England Patriots||1|
|1992||NFL||Jay Novacek||Dallas Cowboys||1|
|1993||NFL||Shannon Sharpe||Denver Broncos||1|
|1994||NFL||Ben Coates||New England Patriots||1|
|1995||NFL||Ben Coates||New England Patriots||2|
|1996||NFL||Shannon Sharpe||Denver Broncos||2|
|1997||NFL||Shannon Sharpe||Denver Broncos||3|
|1998||NFL||Shannon Sharpe||Denver Broncos||4|
|1999||NFL||Tony Gonzalez||Kansas City Chiefs||1|
|2000||NFL||Tony Gonzalez||Kansas City Chiefs||2|
|2001||NFL||Tony Gonzalez||Kansas City Chiefs||3|
|2002||NFL||Todd Heap||Baltimore Ravens||1|
|2003||NFL||Tony Gonzalez||Kansas City Chiefs||4|
|2004||NFL||Tony Gonzalez||Kansas City Chiefs||5|
|2005||NFL||Antonio Gates||San Diego Chargers||1|
|2006||NFL||Antonio Gates||San Diego Chargers||2|
|2007||NFL||Jason Witten||Dallas Cowboys||1|
|2008||NFL||Tony Gonzalez||Kansas City Chiefs||6|
|2009||NFL||Antonio Gates||San Diego Chargers||3|
|2010||NFL||Jason Witten||Dallas Cowboys||2|
|2011||NFL||Rob Gronkowski||New England Patriots||1|
|2012||NFL||Jason Witten||Dallas Cowboys||3|
|2013||NFL||Jimmy Graham||New Orleans Saints||1|
|2014||NFL||Rob Gronkowski||New England Patriots||2|
|2015||NFL||Rob Gronkowski||New England Patriots||3|
|2016||NFL||Travis Kelce||Kansas City Chiefs||1|
|2017||NFL||Rob Gronkowski||New England Patriots||4|
A few thoughts.
Tony Gonzalez was good, and he may be better than you remember. By my reckoning, he was the best tight end in the NFL six times. No other player wore the crown more than four times. He put up incredible numbers, and his commitment to his health gave him longevity not common to the position.
Young fans may think of Mike Ditka as the coach of the 1985 Bears or as the cigar-smoking loudmouth on their televisions. In his playing days, he was the best tight end in the game. He was a crushing blocker, and his rookie year may be the best receiving season by any tight end in history.
Todd Christensen is not in the Hall of Fame, and people don’t talk much about him anymore. He wasn’t a great blocker, and he didn’t have a very long peak. But the peak he did have as a pass catcher was very high. From 1983 to 1986, he averaged 87 catches, 1099 yards, and 8.3 touchdowns and never missed a game.
Shannon Sharpe spent the early part of his career as the primary receiving threat for John Elway. He was one of the first to play at a high level for an extended period of time, and he retired as the position’s leading receiver.
Rob Gronkowski has picked up a Gonzo in half of his seasons as a pro. He is the most dangerous receiver the position has seen, and he is among the greatest blockers. I’ve seen every tight end since Gibbons, and Gronk is the best.
Rich Caster, Kellen Winslow, Antonio Gates, and Jason Witten are the only other tight ends with more than two Gonzo Awards, though guys like Dave Casper and Fred Arbanas were close enough in some seasons to pick up a few more if I felt a little differently when naming a winner.
John Mackey is one of the greatest ever to play the position, but he only has one Gonzo Award. Why? Well, despite having incredible years in 1963 and 1965-68, other players happened to do just a little better in four of those seasons. In 1963, Ditka was a superior blocker and had better receiving numbers despite not catching passes from Johnny Unitas. Then, in 1965, Pete Retzlaff had nearly 400 more yards and three more touchdowns. In 1967, Jackie Smith had over 500 more receiving yards. Finally, in 1968, Milt Morin had 148 more yards and averaged over four more yards per catch.