Thursday’s news that Rob Gronkowski will likely miss the rest of the season was crippling for the Patriots. While New England is deft at replacing broken parts and succeeding on the fly, there is no doubt about how different the offense is without Gronk. Since the day he entered the league he’s been a matchup nightmare. He’s too big, fast, agile, and strong for almost any defender one-on-one. He can break tackles, block, and has impeccable hands. He’s the ultimate safety blanket for Tom Brady is almost every passing situation.
But the only quality more defining of Gronk than his partying and frat-bro persona is his injury history. He lost an entire season due to a back injury in college, and has been unable to stay healthy ever since. In his seven-year career, Gronk’s only played a full season twice. He’s missed five-plus games the other five years. This will reportedly be the tenth surgery he’ll have for assorted maladies (back, forearm, knee and ankle) since his senior year at Arizona.
While Gronk is only 27-years-old, it’s easy to imagine him dealing with health problems for the rest of his career. Back issues tend to derail everything, and usually a player with early injury history never shakes it. He is so large, so physical, so unafraid of contact that the damage to Gronk’s body is like off-road miles on a truck’s suspension. He’s already stacked up some incredible accolades, and been discussed at one of the greats ever. If Gronk never played another down, would he be the greatest of all-time?
Let’s start with his numbers. Gronk has 405 catches, good for a tie for 219th all-time (with Frank Gore). There are plenty of tight ends ahead of him, including Tony Gonzalez (1,325), Jason Witten (1,072), Antonio Gates (874), Shannon Sharpe (815), Ozzie Newsome (662), Greg Olsen (600), Heath Miller (592), and Jeremy Shockey (547), all in the top 100. Kellen Winslow, Frank Wycheck, Ben Coates, Jimmy Graham, Jackie Smith, Mike Ditka, Jay Novacek, and Brent Jones also have more receptions. Because of Gronk’s short career and injury history, his reception and yardage totals are not all that impressive.
But his value is far higher inside the red zone, where he’s an unstoppable force. He has already become the all-time leading touchdown scorer in franchise history at 69 (68 receiving, 1 rushing), and his total through the air puts him tied for 42nd in league history. But Gonzalez and Gates have nearly 40 touchdowns more (although they are the only tight ends higher on this list). They have also both had careers nearly twice as long as Gronk’s. How about honors and awards? He ranks favorably against some of the legends. Gronk is a four-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro, which is one fewer than Ditka, Winslow, Dave Casper and John Mackey, but one more than Ozzie Newsome. The head of this class though, is Gonzalez once again. He tallied an astounding 14 Pro Bowls, and 10 total All-Pro nods (six first-team).
Football’s numbers game is a fool’s errand, though. It is nearly impossible to compare passing stats between eras. This is a little like measuring Babe Ruth’s home run total against players from the 1870s. Tight ends simply were not primary targets in the offense until the ’80s, and how one is used today looks absolutely nothing like 50 years ago. Mackey was the first Gronk, Ditka was Witten 1.0. But they were told to stay in and block 80 percent of the time, primarily a 6th offensive lineman. This is the game’s evolution that likely will not stop. As the rules and priorities of offense continue to push boundaries, Gonzalez and Gronk only catching 90 passes a season may seem quaint in 40 years.
There are only eight tight ends in the Hall of Fame, and certainly Gonzalez will be the ninth. Most assume Witten will be the tenth. If Gronk never played another down, I believe he would be a Hall of Famer (a Gayle Sayers of tight ends). What he’s already accomplished would merit it. Gronk plays for the most successful franchise of the last 15 years, and due to his out-sized personality he has generated more attention than anyone ever at the position. He would get the votes.
We also live in an era where everything is dripping in hyperbole and blazing hot take sauce. So it’s commonplace to hear Gronk mentioned as the greatest ever. While he has been an incredible force, an excellent blocker, and sublime to watch, he’s not the GOAT. The body of work is just not large enough (partly because of youth, partly injuries). Right now, the greatest is Gonzalez. His receiving numbers at the position are obscene, his honors double or triple everyone else at the position, and he was serviceable (not elite) at blocking. Mackey is next up, and is only hindered because the game’s style didn’t highlight his sublime attributes. He did it all, and better than anyone else in his era and maybe ever.
Gronk is in that next group, along with Ditka, Sharpe, Winslow, Newsome, and Casper. Durability and length of a career has to also be seen as an asset or talent. If Gronk is able to extend his career for another five years, he has the potential to be the GOAT. But if he retired today, we could not consider him the greatest.
D.A. hosts 6-10 p.m. ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.