It sure is ironic that the NFL has now allowed pass interference to be instant replay reviewable just days after the most heavily interfered with pass catcher I’ve ever seen had retired. The great No. 87 Rob Gronkowski has retired after nine all-world seasons as a New England Patriot. He had 521 receptions and 79 touchdowns and would’ve had plenty more if the new reviewable replay laws applied while he was playing.
The irony of these two announcements over the last few days struck me. I’m guessing there’s probably a piece and maybe it’s just a tiny piece, of Gronk that’s smacking his forehead saying “Doh” since hearing that PI’s are now reviewable. Nobody got robbed, mugged, held, bear-hugged or brutalized, legally or illegally more than Gronk and yet he still produced — boy did he produce. Irony aside, Gronk sure gave us all a lot to enjoy and marvel at over his nine year career.
The Pats have had some great tight ends over the years. In the 70’s Russ Francis was a freak of nature at the time. He literally galloped with the ball in his hands. He was talented, graceful and had superstar appeal. In the 90’s, Ben Coates was a revelation for a fan based starving for talent. It didn’t take a young Drew Bledsoe long to find his giant, tough and athletic target who was the baddest player on the field here in New England for many seasons.
Both were Pro-Bowlers. Francis made the Pro Bowl three years in a row with New England from ’77-’79. Coates was a three-time All-Pro and on two of those occasions he was first team All-Pro in both 1994 and 1995. Coates is a borderline Hall of Famer in my mind and he’d get my vote if I had one. Francis and Coates were the best offensive weapons the Pats ever had up to their individual playing days. However, neither of them came close to Gronk and it didn’t take long to forget about either of them once he arrived.
Gronkowski could simply do things that literally nobody else could do, he was and is in a class of his own. In my 40-plus years of watching NFL football, Gronk is unquestionably the most physically dominant offensive player I’ve ever seen. In terms of sheer dominance on either side of the field, Gronkowski measures up to guys like Lawrence Taylor or Andre Tippet who made a living destroying and flattening opponents before they knew it was even happening.
If you listen to my show, “The Fantasy Football Hour” you may have heard me say this more than once. If there was a pick up football game at the park and I had first pick of all the NFL greats in history, my first pick would either be Gronkowski or Lawrence Taylor. I just simply can’t imagine anyone playing football better than either of those two guys given their physical gifts, talent, physicality, attitude, motor and skill. Gronk was that good and even more fun to watch.
The vision I will always keep of Gronk in my head is of him barreling down the field, stiff-arming defenseless defenders, breaking tackles and grinding out extra yardage when the degree of difficulty to do so was the highest. He played hard and played rough and literally looked like a man amongst boys with the ball in his hands in the open field.
His hands are amongst the best ever seen in the annals of NFL history. Steve Largent, Jerry Rice add in whomever you’d like, Gronkowski’s hands were second to nobody. When you factor in his catch radius (which was anywhere from the shoelaces to over seven feet in the air) and a wingspan like an eagle, Gronk trumps all the greats in my mind for reliable hands. Many of those 521 receptions would have fallen incomplete to any host of Hall of Fame receivers or tight ends simply by virtue of what balls Gronk could get to. Think of a great defensive shortstop like Ozzie Smith or Omar Vizquel, getting to balls in the hole that nobody else would have any chance of fielding. Gronk made plays like that nearly every week. He also had a knack for making the most difficult catch when the game was on the line. I’m guessing if you gave Tom Brady his choice of all the great pass catchers whom ever lived, he wouldn’t stray from Gronk.
Gronkowski was also easy to root for. His size, skill and dominance on the field was legendary. You would literally marvel at what you were watching. He couldn’t possibly be more likeable and was always someone even the loudest Patriots haters just couldn’t hate; even when the Patriots were making it easy to do with their endless winning, perceived scandals or what have you. Those hate cards never applied to Gronk though. Like Frank “The Tank” everyone loved him and around these parts he’ll go down as not only one of the all-time greats to ever play in this city, but as one of the all-time fan favorites too. He’s the Patriots version of David Ortiz. Clutch, loveable, easily amused and larger than life.
The next stop for the Gronk bus could be Hollywood, the WWE, the Mad Real World, a strip joint or Daytona Beach for spring break, but as soon as he’s eligible that bus will most certainly be rolling into Canton, OH and he truly deserves it. I doubt there will ever be another Gronk and I’m thankful for the nine years we got. In terms of the length of his career, I don’t feel shortchanged at all, because what we got to witness during that time can fill up decades of football in my mind.