Former Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez is widely credited with helping to revolutionize the position, incorporating it more into the production of the offensive machine, rather than as an extension of the offensive line. Consequently, he holds, or has held, just about every conceivable tight end record of meaning.
One would think, then, that he sympathizes with the battle that New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is fighting when it comes to positional pay.
Spoiler alert: he does.
Strongly, in fact. He argues that the NFL’s pay scales are backward, pointing that the other major leagues in North America don’t have pay scales based on position the way there is in professional football.
Gonzalez argues that tight end compensation is discriminatory, and that player pay “should be set based on production and contributions, not positions”.
His argument certainly appears to make a great deal of sense on the surface, and is no doubt right, in essence. But is there a certain level of reality to the slotted, position-based scale of financial compensation unique to the game of football?
In most other sports, it seems, there is a more equitable opportunity for a player of any position to excel and take a game over. In baseball, for example, most everybody steps up to the plate. In basketball, as in hockey, anybody can shoot the puck.
In football, the quarterback is in control of every play. Sure, there is a point guard in basketball, but he doesn’t have anywhere near the control of a quarterback.
On defense, certain positions are more prone to producing ‘splash plays’ such as sacks and turnovers. Accordingly, they’re often rewarded with the highest contracts.
Once upon a time, as mentioned, the tight end wasn’t often much more than just an extension of the offensive line. The tight end was just a slighter tackle that could sometimes catch the ball. There have been exceptions throughout history, but there hasn’t been so dynamic a shift in the way that tight ends are used until recent years.
Many of Gonzalez’s tight end records rival the greatest of wide receiver records. Yards, receptions, touchdowns. Compare his numbers to the wide receivers in the Hall of Fame, and you’ll see that he was a pass catcher. He put himself in the position to be an impact player that was uncommon at the time for tight ends.
This was something that he was aware of during his playing career. It’s why he held out of training camp over a decade ago, in 2001, when he was given the franchise tag, which resulted in a then record-setting contract for tight ends.
If Graham intends to continue his fight, then he’s got just about the best ambassador for his cause that you could ask for. Graham may not hold out, but there’s a pretty good chance that he’s about to become the highest-paid tight end in the history of the game, and one of the most highly compensated pass catchers in the league.