When Jason Witten officially decided to retire from the Dallas Cowboys and join ESPN, he also started an important clock: In five years, he can be considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Dallas Cowboys fans have grown to love Witten, who put together an impressive 15-year career. To put the length of his career into some perspective, he caught his first NFL pass from Quincy Carter.
But did Witten do enough to get in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? What about first ballot?
One stat makes Witten a Hall of Fame lock
The answer to the Hall of Fame question has to be yes. Witten didn’t just hang around for a long time. He played at a high level for nearly his entire career. Had he returned, he still would have been an above-average tight end in the NFL.
While we can debate if Witten was truly deserving of all 11 Pro Bowl berths — he got in last season as a replacement for Zach Ertz, who was in the Super Bowl, after having just 560 receiving yards — the Pro Bowls put him on a pedestal that not many tight ends are on. Among all tight ends in NFL history, only Tony Gonzalez has more Pro Bowls. He had 14. Nobody is really close to Witten for second place. Antonio Gates and Shannon Sharpe are tied for third with eight. Charlie Sanders is the only other tight end with at least seven. Sharpe and Sanders are in the Hall of Fame. Gonzalez is a lock, and Gates seems to be a lock too.
Pro Bowls aren’t necessarily the be-all, end-all when it comes to judging football players, but Witten’s 11 trips to the Pro Bowl means he is a Hall of Fame lock. There have been 28 players in NFL history with at least 11 Pro Bowls, according to Pro Football Reference. Every one is either in the Hall of Fame or not eligible yet.
Witten ranks among the best ever in many categories
Aside from Pro Bowls, Witten had a highly productive career that puts him among the all-time greats at any position.
Witten had 1,152 catches, 12,448 yards and 68 touchdowns over his career. He posted four 1,000-yard seasons and was first-team All-Pro twice, so he wasn’t just compiling those numbers over a long career. At his peak, Witten was obviously elite.
Witten’s receptions place him a rather startling fourth in NFL history. Only Jerry Rice, Tony Gonzalez and Larry Fitzgerald have more career receptions. The next four on the list — Marvin Harrison, Cris Carter, Tim Brown and Terrell Owens — are all Hall of Famers, and the four after them aren’t eligible yet. Witten is 21st for career yardage, which isn’t too bad either.
Among tight ends, Witten is second in catches, second in yards and fifth in touchdowns.
Will Witten make the Hall on the first ballot? He has a case
Witten is clearly a Hall of Famer because he checks boxes for longevity and peak. The more interesting debate is whether he’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Because we’ve been blessed to see so many great players in this era, there will be a Hall of Fame logjam for a while. Some players who we instinctively think of as first-ballot Hall of Famers will have to wait, simply because there are other great players in the queue and the voters can only let in five modern-era players per year.
Also, the voters have made other great players wait. Shannon Sharpe, who I’d pick over Witten, had to wait until his third time as a finalist before being voted in. Other pass catchers like Marvin Harrison, Cris Carter and Terrell Owens were arguably better candidates than Witten, and they didn’t make it in on the first ballot.
Some voters believe in making players wait, for whatever reason. Witten might be above that. Witten will be helped by being in the spotlight the next five years, as Jon Gruden’s replacement on “Monday Night Football.” He was also good to the media, and that doesn’t seem to hurt anyone’s case. He was also in the spotlight as few others are, because the Cowboys constantly get nationally-televised games and they are one of the top few marquee teams the sport has. Also, his ranks make him fairly undeniable as a Hall of Famer (though, I thought the same about Owens and he was snubbed twice). Given Witten’s resume and profile, I’d bet he’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, as Tony Gonzalez was. But it’s no guarantee.
The argument shouldn’t be if Witten will be a Hall of Famer, because nobody with his type of resume has ever been left out and Witten won’t be the first. He’ll be in Canton. The only remaining question, upon his retirement, is if he’ll make on the first ballot or have to wait.
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