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Rob Gronkowski Was the Ultimate Problem for NFL Defenses

Plus, how this year’s Colts compare to last year’s Rams, potential Titans regression, when Jerry Jones will retire and more.

The first step to understanding Rob Gronkowski’s value as a football player would be to take the stat sheet, crumple it up and throw it in the trash.

That’s not to say Gronk didn’t have great numbers over his 11 NFL seasons. He had more touchdowns in a season (17) than any tight end ever has. His 15 career playoff touchdowns are also the best of all-time at his position, and he has the most 100-yard games (32) of any tight end, too. He had 92 touchdown catches in 143 career games, which was only bested by Antonio Gates (116 TDs in 236 games) and Tony Gonzalez (111 TDs in 270 games).

But to truly get it on Gronk, you have to look even closer, and to what he did to a defense that even greats like Gates and Gonzalez didn’t. And that is probably best illustrated by what happened when the Patriots or Buccaneers would break huddle.

Gronkowski could line up in-line and block like a tackle. He could be split out, or in the slot, and catch the ball like a receiver. So when he and his teammates walked to the line, the defense had a decision to make: What do we treat Gronk as? Treat him like a receiver, and put a fifth defensive back on the field, and his team could put him with his hand in the dirt, and he could drive that corner or safety into the third row on a run call. Treat him like a lineman, and put a third linebacker on the field, and now he’s split out and that guy’s covering him.

In a nutshell, Gronkowski the player, on every play, could pose a question that had nothing but bad answers for a defense.

“People had to figure out how to defend us,” Alabama OC Bill O’Brien, his offensive coordinator in 2010 and ’11 in New England, said over text on Tuesday. “And on top of that, we were playing at a very fast tempo. If you played base, we could empty you out. If you played nickel, we could run or pass. If you played dime, we could run the ball.”

And with Gronk having announced his retirement on Tuesday afternoon, that probably best explains what makes him, at least at his peak (and we can have the longevity argument here, too), arguably the greatest tight end ever—and, for my money, the most impactful skill-position talent of his era, with four first-team All-Pro selections and four Super Bowl rings to show for it.

In a lot of ways, he was the realization of what Bill Belichick had thought the position could be in New England, after he’d worked with Mark Bavaro in New York as an assistant, and Ozzie Newsome in Cleveland in his first run as a head coach.

God knows Belichick tried to find Gronk before 2010. He spent a first-round pick in ’02 on Colorado’s Daniel Graham. He spent another first on Georgia’s Benjamin Watson two years after that, and third-round pick on Texas’s David Thomas two years after that. He signed veterans like Jermaine Wiggins and Christian Fauria. He even successfully moonlighted linebacker Mike Vrabel at the position.

Belichick did it because he believed that the tight end could be the ultimate queen on the chessboard, and the 2010 draft allowed him and O’Brien to prove it with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez first, and later with Gronkowski as a singular talent being deployed by Josh McDaniels, after O’Brien left for Penn State.

Playing the way Gronk did, to be sure, came with a physical cost. He broke his arm repeatedly, tore his ACL, suffered concussions and missed 29 games over nine years, a toll that drove him from the game in 2019. But his comeback proved again the impact he’d made, in that it was so important for the greatest player ever, Tom Brady, to have him aboard as Brady changed uniforms after 20 years in New England.

There, he’d score two touchdowns in another Super Bowl win, and show yet again how unique he was in that he was able to come back after a million injuries and a year off, and become a handful to deal with again.

“If not the best ever, [he’s] top three,” his coach in Tampa, Bruce Arians, texted. “Great blocker and receiver. Extremely hard worker. Always prepared to win.”

And if the call comes from Brady in November or December? My guess is he’d be prepared again. His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, told me Tuesday that he wouldn’t be surprised if Brady made that call, and Gronk took that call, four or five months from now. I don’t think any of us would be—and here’s hoping it does happen, so we get to watch him one more time.

But if this actually is it, then it’s pretty clear what we’ve already gotten to see.

“He was the best tight end I have ever been around,” O’Brien said. “He was an even better person. He was 6'7", 260 [pounds] with incredible athleticism. But on top of that, he brought a level of toughness to our whole team. He brought great energy to the building every single day. Gronk never had a bad day. He was an awesome guy to coach.”

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And an awesome guy to watch over 11 years. As tight ends go, probably the best ever.

Let’s get to your mail …

Ryan might outperform his last few years with the Falcons in Indianapolis.

From navy blue blemishes (@navyblemishes): Colts this year’s Rams?

I’ve been habitually too high on the Colts. Am I picking them to win the AFC South again? I’m not sure yet. But … I think there’s a lot of reason for people in Indy to be excited. They have a core of truly elite players (Jonathan Taylor, Quenton Nelson, Darius Leonard, DeForest Buckner), a good subset of ascending talent (Michael Pittman Jr., Braden Smith, Kwity Paye, Bobby Okereke, Julian Blackmon), and a quarterback in Matt Ryan who I think has more bullets left in his gun that a lot of people think.

That said, I do believe a few things need to fall into place for the Colts to take the step from playoff team to one ready to make a deep run in January.

1. Ryan needs to be the guy they think he is. Last week, we explained, with the help of Frank Reich and Ryan, why there’s a good chance Indy will get better play from the 15th-year quarterback than we saw the last couple years in Atlanta. If he’s healthy, I’ll say that I think that will happen.

2. The receivers need to see better health, and some natural improvement. Pittman posted his first 1,000-yard season last year, his second in the NFL. So it stands to reason he’ll take another step. Parris Campbell, if (and this is a big if) he can stay healthy, adds something Indy hasn’t had. And rookie Alec Pierce has shown promise already.

3. Left tackle needs to be sorted out. Anthony Castonzo retired. Eric Fisher’s gone for a reason. And whether it’s ex-Eagle Matt Pryor or rookie Bernhard Raimann, Indy has to be better than it was at the position last year. The good news is that bar isn’t set very high.

4. The pass rush has to come together. That means Paye needs to ascend, and getting more from his draft classmate Dayo Odeyingbo would be nice, too. It also means that veteran addition Yannick Ngakoue has to come through for the team on third down to help take advantage of all the attention Buckner commands inside.

5. The Stephon Gilmore signing needs to work out. Simply based on scheme, the Colts aren’t going to ask as much of Gilmore as he was by the Bills or Patriots over the years. But they need him to be solid in his role, playing zone more than he has in the past, based on how they’ve managed the position, with Rock Ya-Sin gone in the Ngakoue deal.

And yeah, that sounds like a lot. But with the possible exception of the left tackle question, I feel like there’s a good likelihood all of this comes through for the Colts. Which could set up my long-standing feeling that Indy’s pretty close to some pretty good things being proven true. (But, as you all know, I would never root for an outcome just to be proven right.)

From Kip (@Commanders_Talk): Are the Titans ready for a fall off? Henry usage (injury) ... Tannehill (regress to the mean) ... Weaker at other skill positions ... Seems to be they’re banking on catching lightning in a bottle with a more-expensive, less-talented roster than the team that went to the AFC title game.

Kip, it does feel like the Titans are in as much of a win-now spot as anyone in the AFC. Ryan Tannehill turns 34 this summer, and will earn the last guaranteed dollar on his current deal this season. Ben Jones is 32, Taylor Lewan is 30. Derrick Henry is 28, just went through the first injury-marred season of his career and has a ton of mileage from the last three years. Denico Autry and Robert Woods are 32. Bud Dupree’s 29. Kevin Byard will be 29 in August.

That’s a pretty significant swath of the team’s core at a pretty advanced age. And while I have the utmost confidence in GM Jon Robinson and coach Mike Vrabel to be rebuild the team when the time comes, there’s no question the clock is ticking on the current group.

Does that mean a bunch of guys are gonna get old, and the Titans won’t contend to win the AFC South? I don’t think so. But we’re inching closer to that point, and the roster’s built in a way where if the injury bug winds up biting the team, the reason for it might be more than just bad luck. And again, I do think Tennessee will contend this year. I also think, within a year or two, we’ll probably be looking at a different group on the field in Nashville.

While Jones may not be done anytime soon, McClay has run scouting in Dallas for a while.

From Anthony (@SunnyOutsideNow): When does Jerry Jones "retire" and Cowboys get a real GM?

Anthony, it’s fun to bag on Jerry the GM … but is he really that bad at the job? If you really look at it, outside of an extended post-Jimmy Johnson malaise (through the end of Barry Switzer to Chan Gailey and then Dave Campo), Dallas has pretty consistently fielded some of the NFL’s best rosters. I certainly don’t think the current group is lacking for stars either, with Dak Prescott, Zeke Elliott, CeeDee Lamb, DeMarcus Lawrence, Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs among the team’s headliners.

Now, is Jones responsible for all of that? No, not all of it. Obviously, Johnson carried a big stick when the 1990s superteam was being built, Bill Parcells (and Jeff Ireland) put together the loaded rosters of the late aughts, and Will McClay has quietly become a superstar (not to mention homegrown) personnel man in putting the more recent groups together, and all those guys deserve credit for it.

Which, then, begs the question … Does is really matter who has the GM title anymore? It did back in the day, when Johnson left in 1994 following a heated power struggle. It did a bit in 2008, when Jones not ceding the GM title might’ve cost him the chance to keep Ireland. But McClay’s been running the show in scouting for a decade in Dallas now, and so long as he’s happy with his VP title, I honestly don’t see what difference the title makes.

I’d give it to McClay, by the way, just out of respect, the way the Steelers eventually gave Kevin Colbert the GM title in 2011, after he’d run Pittsburgh’s personnel department for 11 years (they didn’t usually assign the title). But that’s just me.

From ES8 SPORTS (@EthanS22386677): Will the Bears sign an accomplished veteran o-lineman before the season starts?

ES8, I think Ryan Poles will have his radar up for opportunities in training camp, yes.

Right now, it looks like 2021 draftees Larry Borom and Teven Jenkins will man the tackle spots—and Chicago likes both guys, but liking them is different from knowing they’ll be a viable starting tackle duo—with Cody Whitehair (an ex-Pro Bowler), Lucas Patrick (a Packer import coming with OC Luke Getsy), and Sam Mustipher (a 2019 undrafted free agent who’s been a spot starter the last three years in Chicago).

To me, there’s a lot of hoping going on there. Could one or two guys surprise? Maybe. It seems less likely that they all will (with Whitehair being the exception, since top-shelf play from him wouldn’t be a surprise). And so when linemen come available via trades, or on waivers in August and September, I think Poles will be ready for it.

The bigger question here, I think, centers on the spot this puts Justin Fields in going into his second year, and how that might affect the new staff’s ability to evaluate him.

From Craig Ginsberg (@CraigAdamG): Do we have any indication of when a long-term deal for Justin Jefferson may be coming?

Craig, Justin Jefferson’s not eligible for one until 2023, but rest assured, he’s got a lot of money coming to him—and may even prove to be fortunate for having to wait. Consider that over this offseason alone, the number of receivers making $20 million per year or more has bulged from four to 11, even with Julio Jones coming off the list. And then just think that doesn’t even include Deebo Samuel, DK Metcalf or Terry McLaurin.

Jefferson has 3,016 yards through two years, which is easily the best two-year start in NFL history (fellow LSU Tiger Odell Beckham Jr. is second with 2,755 yards, Randy Moss is third at 2,726, and Jerry Rice is fourth at 2,497), on 196 catches (tied with Michael Thomas for the most ever through two years). On top of that, he’s proven to be the right type of guy, and teammate, for the new program GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O’Connell are building.

He’s going to be a very rich man, and the bank-breaking will probably happen next spring.

From Rush&Attack (@RUSHandATTACK): why'd BB sit MB in the SB?

Rush, we’ve been through this before, but my understanding (in broad strokes) is the story starts with Malcolm Butler getting sick during the bye weekend. He flew to Minneapolis late as a result, on Wednesday, two days behind his teammates, and was quickly apprised of the fact that he wasn’t going to be starting in Super Bowl LII. From there, he had a bad week of practice, to the point where coaches didn’t feel they could trust him in the game. So he sat.

And I can get, by the way, why the Patriots’ coaches would do that. What I can’t understand as much is why at some point in the game, while the Eagles were running up 538 yards and 41 points, New England didn’t see the emergency, break the glass and give Butler a shot to help turn the game around.

Maybe we’ll never know that part of it.

From Greg (@panther1gb89): Can you help persuade Scott Fitterer to find a better QB than Sam Darnold before 9/11 [the Panthers’ season opener] please?

Greg, can you convince the Browns to take on more of Baker Mayfield’s salary?

All kidding aside, I do think the Panthers like the fight they’ve seen from the nice-guy Darnold this spring, something they didn’t necessarily get from him last fall. Ben McAdoo also made the case internally that he thinks there’s something to work with there. And Matt Corral’s talent has flashed, it just needs to be more consistent.

So why would the Panthers still be in on Mayfield? My understanding is, as I wrote in the Monday morning column, it’d be about raising the floor at the position. Based on how last year went with Darnold, and the offense that Corral is coming from, there’s a chance things could be ugly again, and that could mean grave consequences for some folks in Charlotte. With Mayfield, conversely, it’s fair to think they could at least get average quarterback play, which would be like buying insurance for your quarterback competition.

We’ll see if the oft-discussed potential trade happens, or if Jimmy Garoppolo pops into the picture once his shoulder is healed up.

From Ricker81 (@D_Ricker81): Do you see any scenario outside of injury where the Giants would start Tyrod Taylor over Daniel Jones? What odds do you give Jones for being the long-term starter for the Giants?

Sure, but not to start the season. I think Jones is gonna get a run because the organization has to get a clean read on him ahead of making a decision on his future. So for him not to be the starter, I think he’d have to be a train wreck in training camp, and I don’t think he will. Now, if you’re asking if he has a bad first six or eight weeks, might Brian Daboll decide Tyrod Taylor is the better option then? That’s a different question.

Either way, the season will be a referendum on the team’s future at the position. And as it stands, it sure seems as if the odds are that Daboll and Joe Schoen will be taking a hard look at Bryce Young, CJ Stroud & Co. nine months from now.

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