Rob Gronkowski has a good chance to go down as the greatest tight end in NFL history. He's a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer who's arguably more valuable to his team than any other non-quarterback in the league.
But if Gronkowski was on almost any other team in any other era, he wouldn’t be the same dynamic Gronk that he is today.
Gronkowski is a unique athlete—a coordinated 270-pounder who can run a 4.7 in the 40-yard dash and presents a nightmare matchup for either a linebacker or defensive back. If he didn't play in New England, he would probably still be an All-Pro, even a Hall of Famer. But his incredible rise couldn’t have taken place in any other situation. He’s a great example of the synergy it takes between players, teammates and coaches to produce a truly superior talent.
Every player is system-dependent, but tight end’s role seems particularly so because of their dual role of blockers and receivers. That's why players like Jimmy Graham and Julius Thomas, two tight ends who switched teams in the off-season, haven't been as successful this year. Before his season-ending knee injury, Graham, who was anchored to the line more often in Seattle, had just 48 catches and two touchdowns in 11 games for the Seahawks. Thomas has just 36 catches for 352 yards and five TDs in nine games for Jacksonville after becoming the highest paid tight end in the NFL in free agency. Or even look at the career of Greg Olsen, a former first rounder, who struggled in his one season with TE-loathing offensive coordinator Mike Martz, amassing just 41 catches and four TDs. This season, he has 69 catches for 965 yards through 13 games this season.
There’s a temptation to say Gronk is different, and that he would be just as productive in another situation. But that’s the mistake many analysts made with Graham. The Rob Gronkowski we know is a result of a perfect storm—he’s got the perfect coach and the perfect quarterback, and he's playing in the perfect era. He would be a great player on many teams ... he just may not be the Gronk we know.
Here are four of the key factors that have brought out the ultimate Gronk-ness in the Patriots star tight end:
1. Tom Brady
It's no secret that the New England quarterback makes all his receivers better. Brady’s accuracy, decision-making and leadership elevates everyone on that offense.
Former Patriot Rodney Harrison agrees that landing in New England helped Gronkowski maximize his skills, along with others. “You could say the same thing about me, Tom Brady, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel ... a bunch of guys,” Harrison said on Thursday’s The Dan Patrick Show. “I learned more in six years playing with Bill Belichick then I learned in high school, college and grade school combined.”
But Harrison went on to credit Brady for turning his pass-catchers into stars. “Tom Brady makes a lot of people look really good,” Harrison said. “Deion Branch [is] the MVP of the Super Bowl and he went out and got a [$39 million] contract. Would he get that type of contract without Tom Brady? Who knows? Probably not. ... Tom Brady has made a lot of people a lot of money.”
Tony Gonzalez, who has a pretty good claim for title of best tight end of all time, also links Brady to Gronkowski’s success in comments he made to the Boston Herald earlier this season. “Absolutely [he can be the best ever],” Gonalez said. “I’ll say this, as long as he’s got Tom Brady there—and Tom says he wants to play another seven years until he’s 45 years old—he has a shot, absolutely.”
2. The Patriots' scheme
The Patriots' staff excels at manipulating the offense to create favorable matchups. If you look at Gronkowski’s big plays against the Texans last Saturday, he wasn’t beating all-world coverage. He had a 45-yard gain after Whitney Mercilus tripped in coverage. Needless to say the 258-pound Mercilus should be rushing the passer, not trying to cover Gronkowski.
SI.com’s Doug Farrar explained how the Patriots do it earlier this season. New England's offensive structure is the real killer when it comes to defending Gronk. Not only does the 6'6", 265-pound tight end use his physicality, route knowledge and determination to blow up just about every coverage concept thrown at him, he's also in a set of schemes that makes it nearly impossible to deal with him the way defenses would like to—by covering him with as many guys as possible—and still address Brady's other targets.
As Farrar pointed out, Brady himself provided the blueprint in a radio interview with WEEI in Boston: “Every week we go in there and go ‘Well, [the opposing defense is] going to do this to Gronk, and they're going to do this and have all these calls,’” Brady said, via MassLive.com. “For them to leave him uncovered a couple of times, look, it happens. And that's what we try to do as an offense. We're trying to put pressure on them, we're trying to get them to screw things up. We're not just trying to make it easy for him and, ‘This is where he's going to line up on every play, and this is all you've got to do to defend him.’ You've got to figure out ways—a multitude of ways—to get him open.”
3. Surrounding personnel
Like most premiere tight ends, Gronkowski doesn’t have any competition from a true No. 1 receiver. The Patriots have Julian Edelman in the slot (when he's not injured), but he’s a shorter threat, not a preferred downfield target like a premier true receiver on the outside could be.
Gronkowski ranks fourth among tight ends in the NFL with 96 targets. The three men above him, Carolina’s Greg Olsen (108), Cleveland’s Gary Barnidge (100) and Tennessee’s Delanie Walker (99) all play with notably deficient receiving corps. Gronkowski has also been surrounded by mostly low-round or undrafted receivers his whole career—partly because Gronkowski is so effective downfield, so the Patriots never had a need to draft one.
However, if the Patriots happened to get lucky and draft a top receiver, he’d certainly cut into Gronkowski’s numbers. But Belichick has tried to find that outside receiver in the top half of the draft, with no luck. He took Aaron Dobson in the second round in ’13, Taylor Price in the third round in ’10, Brandon Tate in the third round in ’09 and Chad Jackson in the second round in ’06. Out of those players, Dobson is the only one still on the team, and he has just 13 catches in 8 games this season. If Belichick ever did hit on a No. 1-type receiver, that could negatively affect Gronkowski’s role in the pass game—especially in the red zone where Gronkowski is the primary target on fades.
And no running back would ever consistently threaten Gronkowski's receiving opportunities, either. New England currently ranks second in the NFL with 538 pass attempts and consistently puts the ball in the air more than most teams.
4. The era of tight ends
Passing has increased in today's NFL, and tight ends have a particular advantage under the current rules because safeties risk getting flagged if they try to blow up receivers in the seam. In the 2011 season, Gronkowski and Graham battled head-to-head for the most productive season ever by a tight end (Gronkowski set the record with 1,327 yards, compared to Graham’s 1,310).
But the way the NFL is trending, that record won’t last long. Tight ends like Gronkowski, Graham and Jason Witten are playing a different game than Hall of Famers like Mike Ditka, John Mackey or Dave Casper. If Gronk was around back then, he probably wouldn’t even be a tight end—he’d be stuck on the O-line left to only dream about spiking the ball.
If Gronkowski is universally considered the best tight end to ever lace ‘em up 20 years from now, you won’t hear an argument from me ... as long as you acknowledge he landed in the right place and the right time. Of course, I’d say the same thing about Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith. But that’s an Against the Grain for another day.