D.A.: Who Is The Greatest Quarterback And Tight End Combo Ever?

Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce will likely break into the top five QB/TE pairings eventually, D.A. says, but they're not there quite yet

Damon Amendolara
August 15, 2020 - 3:43 pm

It's been a monumental 2020 for the Chiefs. Since February, Kansas City won its first Super Bowl in 50 years and locked up two of the most important pieces. Patrick Mahomes, the irreplaceable cog of the machine, signed a 10-year extension. This week, Travis Kelce inked a four-year, $57M deal that keeps him in the Midwest until 2025. Kelce has already put up Canton-type numbers in only seven seasons. He has 507 receptions, 6,465 yards and 37 TDs. He's made the Pro Bowl five times. He'll likely pass Rob Gronkowski and Kellen Winslow in career receptions by the end of September. At this pace, within three years he'll zoom by Ozzie Newsome and Shannon Sharpe as well. The only tight ends whose numbers may be out of reach are Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez, although it's not impossible. Kelce is about 700 receptions and 6,000 yards from their zip code. He was named to the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 2010s, a solid benchmark for Hall of Fame worthiness. 

The Chiefs aim to keep this group together for as long as possible to keep the championship window open. Andy Reid has talked about coaching until he's 70, which would be another eight seasons. The Patriots are no longer the dominant force of the AFC. What will the next 5-7 years in Kansas City look like? The Chiefs are poised to be the new Alpha Dog of the league so I began wondering if Mahomes-to-Kelce will be an all-time tandem. Could the duo end up as the greatest quarterback/tight end combo in history? I dug into the numbers to see how much work they'd need to do, and which pairings deserve recognition as the best ever. 

The exercise has to start with the greatest tight ends ever, since quarterbacks have many options to throw to but tight ends only have one passer. We're looking for a pair of players that are both in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So Joe Montana's Earl Cooper, Russ Francis and Brent Jones are eliminated. So is Dan Marino to Keith Jackson, and Troy Aikman to Jay Novacek. Terry Bradshaw had Randy Grossman, and Roger Staubach tossed to Billy Joe DuPree. Brett Favre had a security blanket in Mark Chmura. None of those tight ends are sniffing Canton. 

Staubach did play with fellow Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, winning a Super Bowl together in 1971. But Iron Mike's best years came at the beginning of his career. He never made a Pro Bowl with Dallas. By the time Roger the Dodger was throwing to Ditka, he was no longer a force. The flip side is legendary tight ends with average passers. So Tony Gonzalez is hurt by the mediocrity of Chiefs QBs, while Jason Witten gets dinged for Tony Romo's good-but-not-great career, the same with Ozzie Newsome and Bernie Kosar. 

Drew Brees to Jimmy Graham is an interesting conversation. Brees will undoubtedly be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but Graham? His career numbers will be better than some other tight ends enshrined. He's a five-time Pro Bowler, with three of those honors coming in New Orleans. He was not a part of their Super Bowl team of '09, and as he slips farther in productivity, it's harder to remember his dominant years. It's possible one day we're discussing Brees and Graham both in the Hall, parsing their five years together. But for now, they're not on the short list of greatest ever (interestingly Graham has likely played with three Hall QBs in their primes: Brees, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers). Graham's 386 catches and 4,752 yards from Brees are not at the same level as our other modern duos, although his red zone effectiveness was off the charts, with 51 touchdowns in just five seasons. 

That brings us to the top five. The best QB/TE combos throughout NFL history: Johnny Unitas/John Mackey, Dan Fouts/Kellen Winslow, John Elway/Shannon Sharpe, Philip Rivers/Antonio Gates and Tom Brady/Rob Gronkowski. We are only counting their time together. So while Johnny U. won two titles in the late '50s, Brady had a Canton career before Gronk was drafted, and Sharpe earned a ring with the '00 Ravens, we're not counting those seasons. 

Here's my rankings, with Pro Bowl appearances by the tight end. These are regular-season stats in years where the quarterback was the primary starter, even if others threw passes. An example is the '98 Broncos when Bubby Brister started four games.  

5) Unitas/Mackey: 309 receptions - 4983 yards - 38 TDs, five Pro Bowls, two Super Bowl appearances, one Lombardi trophy

4) Fouts/Winslow: 541 - 6741 - 45 TDs, five Pro Bowls, zero Super Bowls, led NFL in receptions twice 

3) Elway/Sharpe: 529 - 6759 - 44 TDs, seven Pro Bowls, two Super Bowls, two Lombardis

2) Rivers/Gates: 931 - 11,452 - 114 TDs, eight Pro Bowls, zero Super Bowls

1) Brady/Gronk: 521 - 7861 - 79 TDs, five Pro Bowls, four Super Bowls, two Lombardis, led NFL in TDs once

Offenses and passing games changed by the late '70s, so the production of Unitas and Mackey needs to be in context. For the era, they were dominant, and Mackey may be the best pure tight end of all-time. He is the template for blocking by a pass catcher, far too big for a corner to cover, and too agile for a linebacker. His size and speed during a time before the league opened the rules were devastating for opponents. But the Colts ran the football primarily, so the numbers don't blow you away. And the tandem's Super Bowls were at the end of Unitas' effectiveness, a loss to the Jets in a shocking upset and an ugly win in the Blunder Bowl over the Cowboys. 

Air Coryell's attacks reimagined what offense could look like by the late '70s. Winslow was the perfect target for Fouts. He could run like a wideout but was stronger, especially in the red zone, against defensive backs. Winslow led the league in catches twice, proving just how effective they were. Zero Super Bowl appearances hurt them in history. In hardscrabble playoff games, the Chargers offense routinely came up short ('80 vs. OAK, '81 vs. CIN, '82 vs. MIA). 

Like Winslow, Sharpe could have played wide receiver. He wasn't a traditional blocker like most tight ends, but his production was fantastic. By ’98, Elway had finally won his elusive rings, and his tight end (plus Hall of Fame running back) was a huge reason why. Elway and Sharpe put up great numbers in an offense that usually featured Terrell Davis.

Rivers and Gates' numbers together dwarf the rest. Part of that is longevity; they played for 15 seasons together. The tandem is almost 400 catches and 4,000 yards clear of everyone else. But there are two big questions. Will Rivers make the Hall? And how much are they hurt by never playing in a Super Bowl? The first question is difficult. Rivers may enter Canton based on a solid resume that his defenders will rationalize as a product of bad timing. He played in an era of Brady, Brees, Favre, Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Kurt Warner, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. All are in or locks for Canton besides Eli, who is likely. That wasn't Rivers' fault. But personally, I don't think he's a Hall of Famer because he was never one of the five best at his position. Shouldn't induction mandate being the elite of your era? Even if he does get in, the lack of playoff success is overwhelming for this duo. In a decade-and-a-half, they only reached one AFC Championship Game. It's hard to make them the top tandem ever with that hole on the resume. 

The numbers of Brady and Gronk in stats and wins make them the hallmark. In just nine seasons, they topped every other tandem besides Rivers/Gates in yards, and nearly doubled those duos in touchdowns. Who knows what the numbers would've looked like without Gronk's injury history, but when he was on the field he was an impossible matchup. His strength, size, and bear-mitt hands were unstoppable. Gronk played the game with reckless abandon, and ultimately his body suffered from it. Injuries affected parts of five different seasons. He missed most of the '16 campaign and the Super Bowl run, but with Gronk on the field, the Pats won four AFC Titles and two championships.  

Which brings us to Mahomes and Kelce. As we've already established, Kelce is already on pace for a bust in Canton. Most of that damage came before his MVP quarterback. The other five TEs began their careers with the QB already in place. With Mahomes under center, Kelce has 200 receptions, 2,565 yards, 15 TDs, two Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl ring. What would it take for the duo to break into this top five? And could they ever become the greatest tandem ever? Never say never with the Chiefs offense, but it's difficult to project another 731 catches and nearly 9,000 yards to catch Rivers/Gates stats. One thing seems obvious: they won't best Rivers/Gates' scoring record. That's 100 touchdowns away. But Kelce's career average, even before Mahomes, is 84 catches, 1,077 yards, 6 TDs. At that pace, the Chiefs connection would pass Brady/Gronk in receptions in four years, and yardage in five. With Mahomes just getting started, that half of the equation is possible, if not probable. 

Then comes the winning. The Chiefs already have two AFC Championship Games with Mahomes and Kelce, and that all-important Lombardi. If Kansas City were to chase down the Brady/Gronk stats, they'd also need to earn more hardware. They'd have to play in at least two more Super Bowls and win another championship to make the argument for best QB/TE duo ever. The stats are easier than the winning, just ask Marino and Gonzalez. The Chiefs need the same consistency with coaching and defense the Pats have had, and that can't be controlled by Mahomes and Kelce. Just ask Dee Ford. Plus injuries factor in. Can Kelce stay as healthy as Gates? Or will his body break down in his 30s like so many other TEs before him? There's plenty more work to do to be the best ever, but it seems inevitable the Chiefs’ connection will eventually make this top-five list. 

Damon Amendolara, known by his fans as D.A., hosts “The D.A. Show,” from 6:00AM-10:00AM, ET, across the country on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. “The D.A. Show” is known for its unique perspective on sports, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, colorful listener interaction, and candid interviews with athletes and coaches. Amendolara also appears regularly on NFL Network as part of the “NFL Top 10” documentary film series, CBS television and SNY TV. He is a Syracuse University grad and native of Warwick, N.Y.