Rob Gronkowski is, and I assumed obviously, the greatest tight end ever to play in the NFL. On any given snap, Gronk was able to get open at will down field, or block like an all-pro tackle. Yet, within hours of Rob Gronkowski announcing his retirement, the talking heads and twitter GMs were quick to denounce him as the greatest to ever play his position. This is a discussion I can’t believe we even need to have, but here goes…
What Gronkowski did in his nine years in the NFL changed the way the tight end position is evaluated, and it’s that fact that reaches beyond the statistics and cements him as the greatest tight end of all time. The argument against Rob Gronkowski is a simple one. His critics are quick to point out his lack of longevity, and the lower statistical totals that come with a shorter career. Not all greatness is created equal though; for a player like Gronk, you have to look beyond the stats to truly understand what his career means to the NFL and the game of football.
The argument for Gronk’s GOAT status had two main points. First, his peak. It’s not that his apex was higher than any other tight end in NFL history, it’s about how much higher it was. For a 2-3 year span he played the position at a level so far above the likes of Tony Gonzalez, Kellen Winslow, or any other tight end ever had, it looked like he was playing a different sport.
While his peak is certainly the most notable high water mark of his career, the meat of the argument comes from the versatility of his game. Never before had the NFL seen a guy who could run routes and catch like a top wide receiver, run after the catch like a 90’s power running back, all while contributing in the running game like a Pro Bowl tackle. With Gronkowski, there were times it looked like he could get open at will, running a multitude of routes, while simultaneously holding up as a blocker against some of the best defensive players in the league.
Before Gronkowski, there were blocking tight ends and there were receiving tight ends. Some receiving tight ends could block, but it wasn’t the kind of thing teams could scheme around, and it was far from consistent. Some blocking tight ends had decent hands, but they rarely factored into the offense outside of an emergency role. Meanwhile, you could line Gronk up off tackle against a goal line package and run the ball off his edge successfully, which was unheard for a guy who could also catch 12+ TDs in a season. It was snap-to-snap dominance. He was an elite wide receiver and an elite tackle at the same time.
Pre-Gronk, teams would look at a guy like Noah Fant and say ‘Ok, he’ll drop 10-15 pounds and we can use him as an outside wide receiver’. In this post-Gronk era, they want to teach guys like Fant to block at 241 pounds. That just didn’t happen before. Now post-Gronkowski’s nine year NFL career, the tight end position, and the way it is evaluated, is forever changed. That kind of shift is something that can only be brought forth by somebody who is truly the Greatest Of All Time.
Football has seen similar evolution at running back and on the defensive line. In the old NFL, you had players at those positions who specialized in certain situations, whereas you now see a demand for the ‘three-down back’ or ‘three-down lineman’. In many ways, Rob Gronkowski was the first true ‘three-down tight end’.
While most would think that redefining a position should garner GOAT status, there are still those who are going to fight it. This in not a new roadblock in the sports debate world either. In fact, his situation is not unlike another Boston sports legend who is often wrongly denied the GOAT label. The argument between Gronkowski and others is very similar to the argument between Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky. Don’t get me wrong, Gretzky could score the puck at will, but he was more a perfect encapsulation of the game than somebody who redefined it. Orr not only redefined his position, but the entire sport.
To be clear, I’m not saying Rob Gronkowski is the Bobby Orr of football, but if you look at it just in terms of the tight end position, you can find a number of career path similarities. Sure, Gronk and Orr has their careers shortened by injuries, which limited the numbers they put up (Gronk finished his career ranked 104th in NFL receiving yards, while Orr is ranked 109th in career NHL points). Beut at their peaks, they was so far above everybody else to ever do what they did, the game was forever changed for having witnessed it.
So what separates the great players from the greatest? The greats fit the exact mold teams are looking for when they build their roster. The greatest shatter that mold and force GMs, coaches and everybody else to view what they do through an entire different lens. Perhaps nobody made this argument better than Babe Ruth (another GOAT) in the movie The Sandlot: heroes get remembered, legends never die. What guys like Tony Gonzalez, Shannon Sharpe, and Kellen Winslow did will never be forgotten, Gronk’s influence on the tight end position and the game will continue to live on in the new NFL.
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