Now that New England tight end Rob Gronkowski has announced his retirement, people aren’t asking if he reaches the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They’re asking when.
Specifically, they want to know if he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Given recent choices by the Hall’s 48 selectors, it’s a valid question. Because at no time have voters more receptive to casting first-ballot votes than now, with eight of the last 15 modern-era inductees first-ballot choices, including three this year.
One of them was Tony Gonzalez, and I mention him because he’s the first tight end in NFL history to be elected in his first year of eligibility. It took Kellen Winslow three years. It took Mike Ditka 12. And it took John Mackey 15.
But it took Tony Gonzalez one, and that’s significant. So is this: Only four first-ballot Hall of Famers played fewer than 10 seasons -- Gale Sayers (7), Earl Campbell (8), Jim Brown (9) and Dick Butkus (9).
So now the question: Is Rob Gronkowski a first-ballot Hall of Famer? Here’s what voters must weigh.
Gronk’s value to New England as a red-zone and big-play threat was undeniable. In his nine years with the Patriots, no receiver was more valued or trusted by Tom Brady. Gronk’s 79 touchdown catches not only are the most in New England history; they rank third all-time among tight ends, behind Antonio Gates (116) and Gonzalez (111). Gonzalez already is in the Hall. Gates is a lock, and may be one as a first-ballot choice. So where does that leave Gronk? Well, he had 32 fewer TD catches than Gonzalez and 37 fewer than Gates, who may play another year. And while Gronk’s 521 career receptions are tied for 130th among the all-time pass catchers, they're only 20 behind Winslow, whose career was also cut short by injuries. He also averaged 15.1 yards per catch, and, yes, that's remarkable for a tight end. But people forget that Hall-of-Fame tight end John Mackey averaged 15.8 for his career. Gronk's value, of course, was never more pronounced than in the playoffs, where he was first all-time among tight ends in yards receiving (1,163), receptions (81) and TDs (12). In fact, his 12 post-season scores are second only to Jerry Rice and tied with Hall-of-Famer John Stallworth. “One of the most dominant players to put on a helmet,” tweeted Chicago's Kyle Long of Gronkowski.
Gronk was a five-time Pro Bowler and a four-time first-team All-Pro. So what? So only Gonzalez (6) was named to more first-team All-Pro squads. Dave Casper and Shannon Sharpe are second among Hall-of-Fame tight ends with four each. Among his contemporaries, Gonzalez (14), Witten (11) and Gates (8) exceeded him in Pro Bowls. But they never went to a Super Bowl. Gronk not only went to five; he won three, more Super Bowl titles than every tight end in Canton but Sharpe (3). In fact, of the nine tight ends already enshrined, five never won a league title. Hall-of-Fame voters tilt toward players on championship teams and all-decade choices. Gronk will be both when the 2010-20 all-decade team is announced.
He didn’t have as many catches as Jason Witten, and he didn’t score as many touchdowns as Antonio Gates. In fact, he wasn’t close to either. But when he played, he was the pass catcher that New England’s opponents feared most. Granted, he wasn’t always there for Brady. But when he was defenses scrambled to try to stop him … and nowhere was that more visible than the past two Super Bowls. Rewind the videotape to Super Bowl LII when the Patriots trailed Philadelphia by 22-12 at the half and Gronk had one catch for 9 yards. Playing despite a concussion suffered in the AFC championship game two weeks earlier, he erupted in the third and fourth quarters for eight catches, 107 yards a two TDs as the Patriots fell short. One year later, he made the most important catches on New England’s game-winning drive, the most memorable a diving 29-yard stab that only Gronk makes and that set up the Patriots’ winning score. In both cases the script was the same: When Brady absolutely, positively had to have a big play, it was Gronk who produced it. “He was,” Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft said in a prepared statement, “the most dominant player at his position for nearly a decade.” Hard to argue.
This is where Gronk’s resume comes up short. He hasn’t played an entire season since 2011, sitting out 29 games in seven of his nine years because of a raft of injuries. Compare that to, oh, say, the Cowboys’ Jason Witten, and you see the significance. Witten, who recently announced his return to Dallas, missed one game in 15 seasons with the Cowboys. Gonzalez missed two in 17 years with the Chiefs and Falcons. Gronk missed more games in nine seasons than Gonzalez, Witten and Antonio Gates did (23) in their combined 48 seasons. But I don’t know how much that matters to voters anymore. Once upon a time it did. Then Terrell Davis and Kenny Easley were elected to the Hall despite abbreviated careers, and, suddenly, longevity doesn’t seem all that important. Plus, Gronk’s best season exceeded the competition. That would be 2011 when he had 1,327 yards receiving for a league-best 17 TD catches – only the second time in the Super Bowl era that a tight end led the NFL outright in touchdown receptions (Jimmy Graham was the other in 2013). Nevertheless, if there’s a knock on Gronk, longevity is it. As a smart man once told me, "It’s not ability that counts as much as it is availability." Hard to argue*.*
Gronk makes it to Canton, and he makes it early. But there will be competition at the position. Gates is at or near the finish line. Witten has one more year. Knowing the Hall’s board of selectors as it presently is staffed, I’d say it would lean toward a first-ballot choice … though having Gates in the same class (provided he doesn’t play another year) might change the equation. Me? I value longevity, and not playing an entire regular-season since 2011 puts me on the first-ballot fence. However, when Rob Gronkowski played there’s no denying the impact. Nobody did it better.
But that’s when he played.
For an impartial view, I turned to NFL historian John Turney of Pro Football Journal for his take on Gronk, and he made it clear where he stands on the tight end’s place in history.
“The only drawback,” he said, “is a short career. But when it’s Butkus (9 years) that kind of goes out the window. The injuries are his only negative, but his per 16-game averages in yards and TDs … plus the eye test of blocking … to me, put him over. As a blocker, Gronk was one of the best of his era. But he caught passes like the top receiving tight ends of his era. Plus three rings and big stats in the playoffs. The only question is he’s the G.O.A. T. or not. Gonzalez, Mackey, Ditka?”
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