Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots might be the perfect tight end.
His long, lanky frame creates a large "catching radius," to use the trendy buzz phrase. He moves with remarkable speed and agility for such a large man (6-foot-6, 265 pounds). He's muscular enough and tough enough to stomp on overmatched defensive backs like a Godzilla of the gridiron, casually crushing an entire NFL secondary or a small Japanese fishing village beneath his feet.
Just look at the way he manhandled Washington safeties DeJon Gomes and Reed Doughty in New England's 34-27 victory over the Redskins on Sunday. "The Gronk" caught a short pass to the right of Tom Brady then, after recovering from losing his own feet, left both defenders on the ground, flailing away helplessly at his legs in a futile effort to haul him in.
(Maybe it's just the time of year, but the scene reminded me of the way Officer Bert tried fruitlessly to handcuff Clarence in the holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life, before the guardian angel slipped through his fingers.)
Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall merely looked on at the gruesome carnage, apparently too shocked or too fearful to fight back. The result was a 49-yard gain that set up New England's first offensive touchdown.
The onfield manifestation of the tight end's physical skills has been a season for the ages: Gronkowski has already hauled in 15 TD passes, smashing the record for tight ends (13) that was shared by Vernon Davis and Antonio Gates, with three games still to play.
You might say that the Gronk has broken the mold for tight ends.
But he hasn't. That mold for breakout tight ends was cast long ago, and it puts Gronkowski in what might be the most impressive company the position has known.
The same superhuman adjectives used to describe Gronkowski today were once applied to another mythic young tight end who exploded onto the scene and dazzled the football world with his rare combination of size, strength, speed and record-setting production.
His name was Mike Ditka -- "Iron" Mike Ditka. Fifty years ago, long before he was the lovable grandfatherly old sage of ESPN pre-game analysis, 20 years before he oversaw the re-birth of the Monsters of the Midway as head coach in Chicago, Iron Mike was the Gronkowski of his day: the most explosive tight end to hit the game, well, ever.
Ditka's rookie campaign with the Chicago Bears in 1961 was a breakout moment in NFL history. In terms of the tight end position, Ditka, in 1961, was Babe Ruth in 1927 or Dan Marino in 1984. His accomplishments rewrote the standards of the position and changed the context of the conversation.
Ditka, at 6-3, 230, was smaller than Gronkowski. But by the standards of the era, he may have been an even more awesome physical specimen. Each tackle who lines up next to Gronkowski on the New England offensive line, for example, tops 300 pounds. The starting offensive tackles on the 1961 Bears, Herman Lee and Art Anderson, were barely bigger than Ditka, each about 245 pounds.
The factor that set Ditka apart from any tight end before him was not the size, but the production from the position. In fact, the position really didn't exist in the way we know it today, as an actual offensive weapon, before Ditka in 1961.
The comparisons between the two tight ends are many. Both were just 22 in their breakout season, Ditka as a rookie, Gronkowski here as a second-year player. Both have those hard-edged Eastern European surnames that just plain sound tough, like a guy you don't want to mess with in a dark alley or an open seam down the middle of the field.
Dit-Ka! The Gronk.
Ditka grew up in a family of Ukrainian immigrant roots in the heart of the Gridiron Breadbasket of Western PA. Gronkowski made his way from Western New York to the famous football breeding grounds of Western PA for his senior year in high school.
Not only did Ditka statistically reinvent the position, he did it with numbers that stand the test of time, even a half-century later. Here's a look at how Ditka and Gronkowski stack up in their breakout seasons.
The numbers are gaudy for tight ends in any era. In fact, Ditka and Gronkowski are two of just three tight ends in history who hauled in 12 or more TDs with more than 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. The third was Todd Christensen, who was a seasoned poetry-spinning old salt of 27 when he turned out his career season in 1983 (92 catches, 1,247 yards, 12 TD).
Gronkowski's performance here in 2011 is frighteningly good by the standards of the position. If his current place holds true he'll end the year with 18 or 19 touchdown receptions. If he does, Gronkowski will be on the very short list of all players in history with 18 or more touchdown receptions: Sterling Sharpe (18 in 1994), Mark Clayton (18 in 1984), Jerry Rice (22 in 1987) and Randy Moss (23 in 2007). In other words, we have to start turning to wide receivers to find comparisons to the Gronk's production this year.
But within the standards of his era, Ditka had a greater impact and more prolific season.
Consider this: The 1961 Bears passed the ball just 349 times that season, completing 186. The 2011 Patriots have passed the ball 496 times through Week 14, completing 328. The Patriots will probably complete more passes in 14 games than the Bears attempted in 1961.
• Gronkowski is responsible for 22 percent of New England's receptions and 14 percent of its pass attempts end with him hauling in a pass.
• Ditka was responsible for 30 percent of the team's receptions and 16 percent of its pass attempts ended with him hauling in a pass.
• Gronkowski has accounted for 19.8 percent of New England's offense (1,090 of 5,517 yards)
• Ditka accounted for nearly one-quarter of Chicago's offense, 23.6 percent (1,076 of 4,562 yards)
Ditka also averaged an incredible 19.2 yards per catch, an almost unbelievable example of his game-breaking ability. Fifty years later, Ditka remains the only tight end in history with more than 11 TD receptions, more than 1,000 yards and more than 19 yards per catch (cap tip to the profootballreference.com player index for that info).
The biggest difference between the two might be that Gronkowski benefits from playing with Tom Brady, a future Hall of Fame quarterback who helped make Randy Moss and Wes Welker record-setting receivers and who won Super Bowls throwing touchdowns to Deion Branch and David Givens.
Ditka was paired with Billy Wade, a nice quarterback in his day, but several notches below Brady on the totem pole of pigskin.
The Gronk is one of the great young players in the game today. He's carving his own legend as we speak. But he hasn't broken the mold for young breakout tight ends.
He's merely shaping up as the best young tight end of the last 50 years, one carved in the physical and statistical image of Hall of Famer Iron Mike Ditka himself.
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