When the Chicago Bears retired Mike Ditka’s uniform number last year, they declared he “revolutionized the tight end position.”
The Baltimore Sun wrote of John Mackey’s death three years ago that “he will be remembered for revolutionizing his position.” A Cleveland Plain Dealer headline two years ago proclaimed the “NFL’s tight-end revolution began” with Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow.
The Newark Star-Ledger this fall called Tony Gonzalez “a surefire Hall of Famer who revolutionized the tight end position.”
What transformation, then, is New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski making to the game?
“The next phase must be 300 pounds and coming out of breaks because after him,” Gonzalez said with a laugh, “it’s far-fetched to think about it getting any better.
“He’s such a phenomenal football player.”
The Buffalo Bills will get another load of Gronkowski this afternoon in Gillette Stadium.
Bills fans will be reminded again of the colossal 2010 error, when their team drafted defensive tackle Torell Troup 41st overall, one spot ahead of where the Patriots took the kid from Amherst.
Gronkowski has been in the NFL only five seasons, but he’s already discussed as one of its greatest tight ends. He is amassing unprecedented stats while plodding through injury issues.
Gronkowski has Hall of Fame talent, the kind of comprehensive ability that dazzles longtime NFL observers. If he can stay healthy, then he could retire as the best ever.
“He’s been banged up, but when he’s healthy, he’s unguardable,” Gonzalez said last Sunday from the CBS Sports studios, where he’s an NFL analyst.
Gonzalez holds tight end records for catches, yards and touchdowns. He went to 14 Pro Bowls for the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons.
“I’d like to see him put together another three, four years,” Gonzalez said. “If he does that, then he’ll start getting some of those career numbers. As long as he’s healthy, he’ll break the touchdown record.”
Hall of Fame tight end Jackie Smith doesn’t necessarily need to see anything else from Gronkowski to consider him Canton-worthy.
“Even if he stops right now he would be,” said Smith, who retired in 1979 as the all-time leader in catches, yards and touchdowns for a tight end. “But there’s something to this longevity thing. It adds to whatever he might become.
“As long as he doesn’t get hurt, he’ll be a world-beater. He’ll put a lot of marks up there that nobody can touch.”
Loping receiver Lance Alworth – nicknamed “Bambi,” the anti-Gronk – is the only player to record 50 receiving touchdowns in fewer games than him.
Gronkowski produced the best receiving season for a tight end in 2011. He set position records with 1,327 yards and 17 TDs.
This year, he has 82 catches for 1,124 yards and 12 TDs, numbers that lead the NFL at his position. He has league-highs with 60 first downs and 19 receptions of at least 20 yards.
Yet what makes old-school football men drool just as much as fantasy owners is that Gronkowski’s skill set would dominate in any era.
He blocks. He hits. He tramples would-be tacklers.
Receiving tight ends such as Jimmy Graham and Antonio Gates couldn’t play a down of tight end in the days when Ditka, Mackey and Smith lined up next to a tackle and got jammed, slammed and tripped by a hulking linebacker across the line.
Gronk, though. He could handle it.
“He’s the prototype of a great tight end,” Smith said. “That’s what they all should be.”
Gronkowski is a rare human.
The problem for defenses is that, at 6-foot-6 and at least 265 pounds, he can be virtually impossible to cover. And if that’s not indigestible enough, Gronkowski also has future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady throwing to him.
“With his size and the way he can catch the ball outside the framework of his body, it doesn’t matter who’s on him,” Gonzalez said. “If it’s man-to-man coverage, there’s nobody in the league – nobody in the league – that can guard him.
“Even if you’re next to him, he’s too big for you. There’s nothing a defender can do about it.”
Opponents have failed to locate Gronk Stoppers in the draft or by tinkering with linebacker-safety hybrids.
The Bills have been unable to stop him. In seven career games against his hometown team, Gronkowski has 37 receptions for 543 yards and nine touchdowns.
Gonzalez wondered whether a skyscraping, athletic pass-rusher such as Houston Texans star J.J. Watt or Chicago Bears defensive end Jared Allen would offer the best chance to shut down Gronkowski.
After some thought, Gonzalez concluded that, no, those defenders wouldn’t be able to stay with Gronkowski down the field.
“If I was a defensive back trying to cover him,” Smith said, “I wouldn’t sleep the night before the game. And if I did sleep, I’d be having nightmares.
“Linebackers are no problem for him at all because of his quickness, and neither are the defensive backs because of his size. He can run over them, around them and out-jump them.”
Gronkowski this year became the first tight end with four seasons of at least 10 TDs and the second with two campaigns of at least 1,000 yards and 10 TDs.
He’s 76 yards away from joining Gonzalez and Graham as the only tight ends with multiple 1,200-yard seasons.
Gronkowski already ranks second in Patriots history with 59 touchdowns, behind only Stanley Morgan, who played 13 years for them.
“He’s money in the bank,” Smith said.
Advanced Football Analytics data shows Gronkowski receives 23 percent of New England’s targets, highest among all NFL tight ends.
The site offers a metric called “expected points added,” an evaluation of how each player impacts a play when directly involved. Gronkowski ranks first at his position and 11th among all running backs, receivers and tight ends.
Unlike some of the NFL’s fantasy stars at tight end, Gronkowski can play on any down and in all situations.
Many teams must deploy tight ends based on the situation. Buffalo, for example, leans on Scott Chandler to catch and uses Lee Smith more to block.
Analytics service Pro Football Focus scores Gronkowski the best all-around tight end this year and gives him a positive grade as a run blocker. His versatility helps New England keep a defense guessing about the next play.
“He never has to come out of the game,” Gonzalez said.
Over the past five weeks, he has not played less than 92 percent of New England’s snaps. Last week, he and Carolina Panthers veteran Greg Olsen were the only tight ends to play 100 percent of his team’s offensive snaps.
Gronkowski is too valuable to come off the field.
“He’s really becoming so aware out there of different coverages and things they’re trying to do to stop him,” Brady said. “Now, after this time, he and I are really getting on the same page with a lot of things that are adjustments to adjustments to adjustments and that type of thing.
“It’s just been great playing with him. He’s a huge part of our offense, really gets us going. He’s a threat on third down. He’s a threat in the red area. He’s a threat on big plays any time in the game.”
Gonzalez can gab plenty about Gronkowski’s stats and all the records he might obliterate.
But to hear Gonzalez really rave, ask what he thinks about Gronkowski’s blocking abilities.
“That’s where he sets himself apart. That’s what I love about him,” Gonzalez said. “Gronkowski is the best tight end in the league right now because of what he can do blocking you. He enjoys blocking you.
“On the goal line, third and inches, he’s in there and they’re running the ball behind him at times. That’s what makes him a complete tight end.”
Had injuries not limited Gronkowski through the first half of the season, he would rank among the top four in snap percentage along with Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller and Olsen.
By comparison, receiving tight ends Gates and Graham have played 72.1 percent and 67.8 percent of their teams’ plays.
Graham, in fact, doesn’t even consider himself a tight end. Graham argued this summer he should be a wide receiver within the NFL’s franchise-tag system. Receivers make more money than tight ends, and the Saints split him wide or lined him up in the slot on 67 percent of his snaps last year.
An independent arbitrator upheld the NFL’s designation that Graham is, in fact, a tight end.
You don’t need a courthouse to determine what Gronkowski is.
And it wouldn’t matter the decade.
“There isn’t any doubt,” Smith said. “He could handle linebackers. Quarterbacks would love to throw it to him every time, and if I was as big as he is, I’d insist they do it. He can catch the ball every time on any down.
“You can fit him in any damn era he wants.”
Story topics: Antonio Gates/ Greg Olsen/ Heath Miller/ J.J. Watt/ Jackie Smith/ Jared Allen/ Jason Witten/ Jimmy Graham/ John Mackey/ Kellen Winslow/ Lance Alworth/ Lee Smith/ Mike Ditka/ Ozzie Newsome/ Rob Gronkowski/ Scott Chandler/ Stanley Morgan/ tom brady/ Tony Gonzalez/ Torell Troup