ATLANTA – A memorable weekend for NFL tight ends will begin Saturday with Tony Gonzalez reaching the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the first first-ballot selection at the position and possibly end Sunday night with Rob Gronkowski starting the clock on his five-year post-retirement wait for enshrinement.
The first part is essentially a lock. Gonzalez was a six-time All-Pro who played 17 seasons and still ranks second among all players in receptions (1,325) behind Jerry Rice, first in receiving yards by a tight end (15,127) and second among tight ends in receiving touchdowns (111) behind Antonio Gates (116).
The second part? Well, that’s something Gronk the big, happy lug has had fun with during Super Bowl week. Even as reporters spent roughly four hours over four days asking the nine-year Patriots veteran about his retirement plans after he recently said he would take the early part of the offseason to decide whether he wants to subject his 6-foot-6, 260-pound, soon-to-be-30-year-old body to a 10th NFL season.
“Yes, no, maybe,” he said Thursday with wide, playful eyes before unleashing one of those Gronk-sized giggles.
Asked how many times he’s been asked that question this week, Gronk guessed 30. Told that seemed low, Gronk played along with an, “OK, 50.” Asked if he’s changed his story to “mess with reporters,” he giggled again and said, “Yes. Today’s a maybe.”
If there’s a Hall of Fame for players who love interacting with the media during Super Bowl week, Gronk would have a statue outside the building.
But he’s facing a serious pain-tolerance decision from having played this game every year since seventh grade. Neither choice is easy, but one gets more and more tempting.
“Try and imagine getting hit all the time,” Gronkowski said. “And then try and imagine having to be where you need to be every day in life.”
If Gronk does retire, where will he rank among the greatest tight ends of all time? The Hall of Fame currently has only eight tight ends, the most underrepresented non-specialist group at a modern-era position.
Mike Ditka was the first tight end to reach Canton. It came in 1988 after a 10-year wait. Following him were John Mackey in 1992 (14-year wait), Jackie Smith in 1994 (10), Kellen Winslow in 1995 (two), Ozzie Newsome in 1999 (three), Dave Casper in 2002 (12), former Gopher Charlie Sanders in 2007 (24) and Shannon Sharpe in 2011 (two).
Sharpe is the only one who played after 1990. Ditka, Mackey, Sanders and Smith played in the ’60s and ’70s, when inline blocking was still the priority at the position. Casper, Newsome and Winslow played in the ’70s and ’80s as tight ends began to grow in the passing game and Winslow became the first real deep threat.
Injuries have robbed Gronkowski of 29 regular-season games, six more in the postseason and New England’s Super Bowl-winning run in 2016. And now the wear and tear of playing full throttle since he was 13 could force an early retirement.
Among the Hall of Famers, only Winslow played fewer than 10 years (nine). And only Winslow’s 109 regular-season games are fewer than Gronkowski’s 115.
But Gronkowski’s four first-team Associated Press All-Pro honors matches the most of any current Hall of Fame tight end. Sharpe and Casper each had four.
Sharpe’s 62 touchdowns are the most among Hall of Fame tight ends. But Gronkowski’s 79 touchdowns are 17 more in 89 fewer games, which is the equivalent of 5½ seasons.
Gonzalez heads to the Hall of Fame as the player most consider the greatest tight end ever. But Gronkowski could make an argument for most complete tight end of any era. A tight end who mixes the distant past, present and future of how the position was, is and will be played.
As he reminded everyone during the winning drive in the AFC Championship Game at Kansas City, Gronkowski’s size, speed, quickness and hands can be unstoppable lined up wide against one-on-one coverage. But he’s also the rare modern superstar tight end who also can be dominant in the run game.
In two playoff games, the Patriots have run for 331 yards and eight touchdowns on 82 carries (4.0). According to Pro Football Focus, Gronkowski’s run-blocking grades of 75.5 against Kansas City and 74.0 against the Chargers were his second- and third-highest marks of the season.
Of course, even massive bodies that look indestructible have their breaking points.
“Mentally and physically, this game isn’t for everyone,” Gronkowski said. “I have friends who wonder how I’m still doing it. But I’ve been doing it my whole life. I really don’t know any different.”