Rex Ryan hasn’t been shy this year about labeling members of the New England Patriots as the best ever.
He’s done that twice this season, bestowing the honor upon coach coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
Given another opportunity to do so leading up to Sunday’s game, however, Ryan showed some restraint. When asked if Patriots star and Amherst native Rob Gronkowski might one day be considered the best tight end ever to play in the NFL, Ryan demurred.
“I wouldn’t put Gronk in there because I’ve got so much respect for Ozzie Newsome spending 10 years with him,” Ryan said. “Even if he is better than Ozzie, I’m going to stay with Ozzie.”
The reality is, Gronkowski’s not there yet – but he’s well on his way. The former Williamsville North Spartan has a very good chance of going down in history as the best to ever play his position when his career is over.
There are only eight tight ends enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio – Mike Ditka, John Mackey, Jackie Smith, Kellen Winslow, Newsome, Dave Casper, Charlie Sanders and Shannon Sharpe. They’ll soon be joined by Tony Gonzalez – who retired after 17 years with the Chiefs and Falcons as the positional leader in receptions (1,325), yards (15,127) and touchdowns (111). He’s eligible after the 2018 season.
After that, San Diego’s Antonio Gates and Dallas’ Jason Witten figure to get consideration. Then, when his playing days are done, it will be Gronk’s turn.
In the Patriots’ media notes distributed this week leading up to Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field, there are nine entries alone under the “what to watch for” section pertaining to Gronkowski, who ranks 13th all-time among tight ends in receiving yards with 5,930, and will move into the top 10 with 378 more, passing Steve Jordan.
More immediately, with his next touchdown catch, he’ll set New England’s franchise record for touchdown receptions (68) and total touchdowns (69), breaking Stanley Morgan’s records. Gronkowski’s current 67 touchdown catches already rank third all-time at his position behind only Gonzalez and Gates.
Perhaps most impressive, Gronkowski, 27, has accomplished all that he has in just seven seasons and 85 games. Project his numbers if he plays another 85 games over seven years and he’d have 799 catches (fifth all-time), 11,866 yards (second) and 134 touchdowns – which would shatter Gonzalez’s record.
“That’s the last thing I’m thinking about right now,” Gronkowski said this week. “We’ve got a big game here. We’ve got the Buffalo Bills, going into Buffalo. The crowd is going to be super loud. They’re always into it, lot of energy. That’s the last thing I’m thinking about. When it happens, if it happens, there’s another time to talk about it, but as of right now I’m just focused on the Bills. That’s the last thing I want to talk about.”
That’s OK, since so many others can’t get enough of talking about Gronk. The Buffalo News did that this week with Gonzalez, Smith and Pete Metzelaars, the Bills’ all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns at the position.
The first question in our roundtable was simple: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Rob Gronkowski?
Gonzalez: “I think it’s pretty easy to say that he’s the best in the NFL right now. He’s been that way for the last couple years. He’s just so big and fast. And when you’re playing with a guy like Tom Brady, Hall of Famer, I mean arguably the best to ever put on a pair of shoulder pads and play that position – when you have two great players like that, it’s kind of like the Jerry Rice-Joe Montana connection. Two Hall of Famers playing together, that’s when magic happens.”
Smith: “I don’t think that there’s any doubt that he’ll make it to the Hall of Fame. He could probably quit right now and make it to Canton. … He’s the perfect guy for tight end as far as his size and his speed and his reach. He’s a terrific athlete. It’s a pleasure to watch him run and watch him play. He’s really something to be proud of for us guys who played that position. … I don’t know what else you can say about him other than he’s just about the perfect tight end.”
Metzelaars: “When he’s healthy, he’s dynamic, He’s a matchup problem for everybody in this league with his size and his strength. He’s been the best tight end in the league for a long time.”
Gronkowski owns the single-season record for receiving yards (1,327 in 2011) and touchdown catches (17). His career average of 14.9 yards per catch is better than that of both Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens (each of whom are 14.8). But for all the prolific numbers he’s put up, it’s his blocking ability that has won over the old guard. The analytics website Pro Football Focus ranks him as the fourth-best run-blocking tight end in the NFL this season after 93 snaps in that role, even after he missed the first two games with a hamstring injury and was not himself in the next two. How impressive is his ability to get after defenders as a blocker?
Gonzalez: “To me, that’s the measure of a great tight end. That’s Jason Witten, that’s Gronkowski, that’s, in my book, the great ones in history, the ones that don’t come off the field and can block you. There’s going to be no let off if we decide to run the ball. You get behind a guy like Gronk, he’s creating lanes. I mean, he’s killing linebackers and handling defensive ends. That’s part of the position. If you want to be called the complete package, you better be able to block.”
Metzelaars: “That type of abandon and drive is sometimes hard to find, and he has it. I think a little bit of that comes from being a Buffalo guy. He grew up competing like crazy – what’s he got, five brothers or whatever it is? – and he’s carried that mentality into the NFL.”
Gronkowski said this week that coming home to play will always be special.
“It’s an honor to go back and play in front of your friends, family, your teachers that you grew up with that taught you,” he said. “It’s always fun.”
The numbers certainly support that. In five games played in Orchard Park, he has 30 catches for 474 yards and six touchdowns.
One of the “knocks” on Gronkowski, if it can be called that, is that he’s catching passes from a quarterback who, like Ryan, many perceive to be the greatest of all time. Is that fair?
Gonzalez: “I would never take anything away from Gronk, ever. … He is going to be a great player no matter who he’s playing with. I don’t care what quarterback you put back there. He’s going to go out there and make plays for that offense, but when you play with a guy like Brady, it just takes your numbers to a whole new level."
An example Gonzalez used is that of Randy Moss. He was on a Hall-of-Fame pace before coming to New England, but his 2007 season with the Patriots — when he had 1,493 receiving yards and broke Jerry Rice’s single-season touchdown receptions record with 23 – solidified him as one of the best ever.
Gonzalez: "It’s amazing what you can do when you’ve got a guy like Tom. I’ve played with him at the Pro Bowl before and it’s like, ‘Holy smokes, could you imagine?’ But it takes two, don’t get me wrong. It’s like, 'OK, how would Tom Brady’s numbers look if you took Gronk away? How would Joe Montana look if you took Jerry Rice away?’ They’re working off each other, and that’s the beauty of it. That’s why I love these two guys together. They’re going to go down in history as one of the great tandems.”
Brady and Gronkowski connected for their 66th touchdown pass last week, breaking a tie with Jim Kelly and Andre Reed for seventh in NFL history. Since Brady got back from his four-game suspension, Gronkowski has 16 catches for 364 yards and two touchdowns.
According to research from CBSsports.com, Brady had a completion percentage of 57.3 in games he played without Gronkowski, while that number increased to 65.2 with Gronk in the lineup. Brady’s yards per attempt rose from 6.6 to 7.8, as well.
Smith: “They complement each other. They’re both glad that each other is on the same team. It’s easier for a quarterback to throw to the tight end. Generally, the ball doesn’t have to be in the air for that long, and Gronkowski being able to go across the field and down the middle like he does, it’s just a terrific threat.”
Metzelaars: “Does Brady make Gronkowski? A little bit. Does Gronkowski make Brady? That’s also true a little bit. With his size and speed and the matchup problems he creates – they split him out, they use him in the slot, they use him all over the field trying to get matchups – and when they get one they deem as favorable, Brady’s throwing the ball to him. Gronkowski still has to win, and most of the time, you know, he does. He’s a great runner after the catch. It goes hand in hand. He’s in a great system for him because of their ability to diversify where he lines up. He’s got to be a very smart player to do all those different things that he is doing.”
That fact might get lost on some. There’s no doubt a guy with a book entitled “It’s Good to be Gronk” loves life. The photos with porn stars, “Gronk’s Party Ship,” and all of his other shirtless pursuits drive that point home harder than one of his spikes. What do you make of his off-the-field pursuits?
Gonzalez: “You know what, that’s what I love about him, too. Every time I see that guy, he makes me smile. Back when I was younger, it was a different day, they didn’t have camera phones and all that stuff. I believe in having a good time as well, going out and enjoying your time in the NFL, and he’s not afraid to do that.”
Metzelaars: “He’s got that rap about him, being a little bit of a knucklehead, because he’s done some knuckle-headed things, usually in the offseason, with the partying and the hanging out with who he hangs outs, but when he plays football that’s absolutely not the case.”
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady: “Football means a lot to him, and he works extremely hard at it. He’s very disciplined and he does anything the coaches ask him to do here. He’s got great respect and admiration by all his teammates for him and what he does.”
Gonzalez: “During the season, it’s got to be all business. I love guys that can focus. A lot of guys can’t. They can’t separate the two. Any team I’ve ever been on, the guys who work the hardest, the guys who bust their (butt), those are the guys who are usually the best on the team. They’re usually the best players. That’s why Tom Brady is so great. His work ethic is legendary.
“Gronk is on his way to being a legend in this game. That’s part of it that I hope doesn’t get lost, is the time you’ll never see. There’s no cameras there, but he’s in the weight room, he’s constantly rehabbing, getting his body right, watching film, making sure he knows every play, being on the same page with Tom. That’s what the great ones do, that’s what the Hall of Famers do.”
If there is a concern about Gronkowski’s career, it is longevity. Dating to his college days at Arizona, he has undergone surgery to repair a ruptured disk in his back (2009), four arm surgeries to repair the broken left forearm that he broke twice during the 2012 season, another back surgery in 2013 that cost him the first six games of that year, a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee, a concussion in December 2013 and a hamstring injury this year. Are injuries the only thing that could hold him back?
Gonzalez: “Absolutely. As he gets older, I hope he figures out that sometimes getting an extra yard, or going ‘Gronk,’ like running people over and doing all that stuff, in the NFL, if you do that week in and week out, it’s going to catch up to you after a while. You’re going to get hurt. I hope he figures out that you can give up 1 yard, or you don’t have to run everybody over and you learn how to keep yourself healthy for the whole season, year after year.”
Smith: “You can forget about that. He’s not that way. I have a feeling he doesn’t feel fulfilled unless he does exactly what he does. So if you ask him to do any less than that, I think you’re taking away from his ability. It’s a thing a player does. You can’t say ‘Don’t struggle for an extra yard because somebody’s going to come in there and take your knee out.’ That doesn’t work for a player to take that kind of advice. He can’t do it. What got him there is the way he’s doing it now, and he needs to keep doing it that way to have some self-fulfillment.”
Metzeelaars: “You worry about that a little bit, but you also admire it, watching somebody play who is so passionate about the game of football, that loves to play and loves to compete so much that he’s laying it all out there play after play after play. It’s exciting to see somebody that’s playing that way. Unfortunately, sometimes the result of it is he gets injured in some situations.”
Gronkowski acknowledged this week that there is a time and place to know when a play is over.
“You’ve always got to protect yourself whenever you can,” he said. “You know, when the journey is done if you’re running the ball, just get down and don’t take that extra shot. You can always show your toughness, you can have five guys take you down, but really that’s sometimes not the case. … You want to preserve your body for the next play.”
If he's able to do that, his “journey” might end with Ryan having no choice but to declare another Patriot as the greatest of all-time.