A few short weeks ago, Raiders tight end Darren Waller elevated his game to an entirely new level and earned a place in the record books by catching a whopping 13 passes from quarterback Derek Carr for a total of 200 receiving yards. Sure, the performance came against a hapless New York Jets defense that’s barely put up a fight all season, but even still, it’s one of the most impressive single-game performances for a tight end in NFL history. That prompted football fans everywhere to wonder about the historical implications of this total. Did Waller set some kind of record? And if not, what’s the most receiving yards by a tight end in a game?
Shannon Sharpe holds the record for most receiving yards by a tight end in a single game, with 214 yards on 12 receptions against the Kansas City Chiefs back in 2002. But the award for most impressive receiving game by a tight end might belong to someone a bit further down the leaderboard. I’ve compiled a list of the top ten highest receiving totals by a tight end in a game.
Here’s that list, in ascending order.
T-9th: Dallas Clark, Indianapolis Colts (183 Yards)
September 21st, 2009 vs. Miami Dolphins
Whenever Clark got the football, he was nearly impossible to stop. In this particular game against the Dolphins, the 6’3” monster compiled 183 yards on just seven receptions. One of those receptions was a catch-and-run that he took all the way home for a marvelous 80-yard touchdown. Clark was absolutely a difference-maker in this game, which the Colts narrowly won by a score of 27-23.
Clark’s always been a force on the field; when they were teammates in Indianapolis, quarterback Peyton Manning famously referred to him as “a freak in the weight room”. His mammoth size and titanic strength helped him amass 5,665 receiving yards on 505 receptions over the course of his 11 NFL seasons, nine of which he spent with the Colts.
T-9th Place: George Kittle, San Francisco Giants (183 Yards)
October 4th, 2020 vs. Philadelphia Eagles
When I said in the first paragraph that Sharpe’s record-setting game wasn’t necessarily the most impressive, I was referring to Kittle’s near-perfect performance just earlier this year. He was nothing short of majestic that day, catching all fifteen of his targets and finding the end zone on one occasion. He even added an eight-yard rush to his stats for good measure.
Kittle’s already had a great career (particularly for someone who was a mostly unheralded 5th round draft pick), and at just 27 years of age, he’s probably got a lot more oomph ahead of him. It’s unfortunate that he had to miss so many games this season due to a high ankle sprain he suffered in Week 8, but he’s back on the field now and ready to keep racking up accolades.
8th Place: Mike Ditka, Chicago Bears (190 Yards)
November 12th, 1961 vs. Green Bay Packers
Ditka’s 190-yard game against the Packers came as part of a rookie season in which he had five different games with at least 100 receiving yards. It came all the way back during an era when the Bears were still playing at Wrigley Field! Ditka’s otherworldly performance included a whopping three touchdowns, which accounted for three quarters of the team’s points in a 31-28 loss to Green Bay.
Ditka’s career started out blazing hot, with five consecutive Pro Bowl selections, over 4,000 receiving yards, and 32 touchdowns during an era that wasn’t exactly known for gargantuan stats from a tight end. In addition to being a hall of famer, Ditka is known for being a talented head coach who led the Bears to their most recent Super Bowl victory.
7th Place: Ozzie Newsome, Cleveland Browns (191 Yards)
October 14th, 1984 vs. New York Jets
Newsome’s 191-yard day actually stood as a Browns receiving record for 29 years until Josh Gordon burst out of the gates to snag 237 yards’ worth of passes back in 2013. Up until then, Cleveland was one of very few franchises to have a tight end hold the record for receiving yards. That game was no fluke, either; it actually came as part of a very impressive 1984 Pro Bowl campaign.
Newsome was a fixture on a talented Browns team back in the mid-eighties. He and quarterback Brian Sipe might have led the team to a Super Bowl berth, if it hadn’t been for the infamous Red Right 88 interception that stopped the franchise dead in its tracks. After spending his entire career in Cleveland, Newsome retired and went on to join the Browns’ front office in an executive capacity.
6th Place: Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders (200 Yards)
December 6th, 2020 vs. New York Jets
Okay, he was playing against a Jets defense that would probably give up a hundred receiving yards to my infant son, but hey, it’s an accomplishment nonetheless. Earlier this year, Waller became just the sixth tight end ever to top the 200-yard mark in a single game. As you can see from this graphic, he was essentially omnipresent on the gridiron, making it nearly impossible for New York to stop him from dominating.
2020 is the second straight season in which Waller has compiled over 1,000 passing yards, and he’s still got a game left to tack on a few more. He’s also been named to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his five NFL seasons. Waller certainly took a long time to truly blossom — he never topped 100 yards in a season until 2019 — but when he finally broke out last year, he put NFL defenses on notice with a 1,145-yard campaign.
5th Place: Rich Caster, New York Jets (204 Yards)
September 24th, 1972 vs. Baltimore Colts
Caster’s big day against Baltimore was unique and eyebrow-raising for a few different reasons. The first is that his 204 yards came on just six receptions from aging quarterback Johnny Unitas, meaning he averaged a stunning 34 yards per catch. The second is that half of those receptions went for touchdowns. It was also just the third game in history that saw a tight end eclipse 180 receiving yards.
To this day, Rich Caster still owns a top 250 spot on the all-time receiving leaders list (he checks in at 247 with 5,515 career yards). Caster never topped over 1,000 yards in a single season, but he enjoyed a long and productive 13-year career during which he managed to post several above-average seasons.
4th Place: Pete Retzlaff, Philadelphia Eagles (204 Yards)
November 14th, 1965 vs. Washington Redskins
The year before the big NFL merger, Pete “Baron” Retzlaff became the second tight end ever to surpass 200 receiving yards in a game when he caught seven long passes for an average of 29 yards apiece. The performance came during his age-34 season, when he proved he still had plenty left to offer. In fact, it was the best season of his 11-year career; he accrued 1,190 receiving yards and earned First Team All-Pro honors.
In fact, Retzlaff made the Pro Bowl five separate times throughout his career, including a three-year streak from 1963-1965. On the whole, he ended his playing days with 7,412 receiving yards and 47 touchdowns, all of them with the Philadelphia Eagles franchise. One fun fact about Retzlaff is that he actually had negative rushing yards for his career, though that fact probably isn’t as fun for him as it is for you and I.
3rd Place: George Kittle, San Francisco Giants (210 Yards)
December 9th, 2018 vs. Denver Broncos
Though Kittle’s 15 catches on 15 targets for 183 yards earlier this year was probably more mind-blowing on the whole, his highest receiving total came two years ago and was impressive for an entirely different reason. Kittle managed to compile all 210 of those yards in the first half of that game. The main highlight was an 85-yard catch-and-run in which Kittle showed off his otherworldly speed.
Again, it can’t be overstated that Kittle’s career is just getting started. He’s already got 3,511, which puts him within spitting distance of a spot in the top 100 all-time. If it hadn’t been for his high ankle sprain earlier this season, Kittle would almost certainly have put together his third consecutive season with over 1,000 receiving yards.
2nd Place: Jackie Smith, St. Louis Cardinals (212 Yards)
October 13th, 1963 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Nearly 60 years ago, Cardinals legend Jackie Smith became the first tight end ever to top 200 yards in a single game, shattering the previous record set by Ditka just two years earlier. Smith caught nine receptions from quarterback Charley Johnson (good for 23.6 yards per catch), and found the end zone twice. His record would tower for 39 years before it was finally broken by Sharpe in 2002.
Smith enjoyed a 16-year NFL career, which was practically unheard of back then. Even today, that kind of longevity is rare from a contact-heavy position. Part of Smith’s secret was his ability to stay healthy; he was so durable that he managed to take the field for all 14 games in nine of ten seasons between 1965 and 1974. That stretch included five consecutive Pro Bowl seasons beginning in 1966.
1st Place: Shannon Sharpe, Denver Broncos (214 Yards)
October 20th, 2002 vs. Kansas City Chiefs
As I mentioned above, Sharpe’s 214 yards managed to just barely edge out a 39-year-old record. As ESPN said at the time, he “turned back the clock” with this performance by making fans forget that he’d turned 34 earlier that year. Don’t get me wrong, Sharpe was on the decline in 2002 (his penultimate NFL season), but his record-setting day accounted for nearly a third of his yards that season and proved that he could still get the job done.
Sharpe played 188 games during his career and compiled 10,060 receiving yards, becoming the first tight end in history to eclipse 10,000 yards (though Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, and Jason Witten have done it since). His best stretch of football came between 1996 and 1998, when he earned three consecutive First Team All-Pro selections and caught 216 passes for 2,937 yards.
If we’ve learned anything from watching Kittle and Waller go off this season, it’s that Sharpe’s record is anything but safe. But rest assured, it’s a high mark that won’t be beaten easily.
Featured image courtesy of Jack Kurzenknabe, via Flickr.