Top 50 Patriots Under Bill Belichick: The Rob Gronkowski conundrum

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Curran: Gronk presents a dilemma for the Top 50 Patriots list originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Is Rob Gronkowski the greatest tight end in NFL history? Probably. In a 10-year NFL career, he’s caught 566 passes for 8,484 yards with 86 touchdowns. Add in the playoffs, where he’s got another 89 catches in 20 games for 1,273 yards and 14 more touchdowns.

Then add in the four All-Pro honors and the three Super Bowl rings (one in Tampa). And the fact he blocked like an extra offensive lineman, played hurt and was revered by teammates for his goofy authenticity?

It’s probably more than "probably" that he’s the best there’s ever been at the spot. It’s a fact.

A full-go Gronk in SB46 against the Giants? Any Gronk in the 2013 playoffs? A full-go Gronk down the stretch in 2015? The Patriots might have had six Super Bowls last decade, not the three they wound up with.

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In July of 2015, I had Gronk at No. 9. This was the write-up then.

In May, Gronk turned 26. In his five-year NFL career he has 61 touchdowns in 73 NFL games (including playoffs). That’s .83 TDs/Game. In 189 games, San Diego’s Antonio Gates has scored 100 touchdowns (.53 TDs/Game). Surefire Hall of Fame Tony Gonzalez? He scored 115 in 277 games (.42). If Gronk can have their longevity – a large “if” for a player who’s been cut open way too much already – he won’t be threatening their tight end records. He’ll be a threat to get into the top five all-time and will retire the belt as the best tight end in NFL history.

That’s why Gronk is here in my Top 10 and players such as Willie McGinest and Rodney Harrison with more rings and leadership are behind Gronk. They were not threats to the record books. Gronk is. And he hasn’t even been fully healthy for an entire season yet. In the 2011 playoffs, Bernard Pollard broke Gronk in the AFC Championship Game. There’s no telling the difference he would have made in the Super Bowl, but imagine Victor Cruz not playing for the Giants that day. In 2012, he broke his arm in December and then re-broke it in the playoff win over Houston. And the Patriots offense went from potent to putrid and got shut down by the Ravens in the AFC Championship.

The 2013 Patriots probably wouldn’t have won a Super Bowl even with Gronk – Seattle was that good. Denver too. But his blown ACL in December 2013 made the conversation moot. No injuries, how many rings would Gronk have added to the fingers of his teammates? Gronk’s ripple effect on the rest of the offense is significant. He is an outstanding blocker. The next-best tight end in the game, Jimmy Graham, couldn’t block an internet ad (HA!). And he attracts so much attention that the number of players defenses can allocate to wideouts is reduced. If a team wants to try and take its chances? Their chances are poor. See K.J. Wright in the Super Bowl. That’s not fair.

As far as my final criteria on this list, which is basically the extent to which a player is willing to put the team first, Gronk is interesting. Obviously, he labors as hard as any current professional athlete to cultivate his “brand” and it gets tiresome, predictable and sometimes uncomfortable, like when he supposes the president is drunk. But he serves as comic relief and – even the most skeptical among us – can’t deny that, when it’s time to play he plays. He’s the world’s friendliest, most loyal, most playful Bull Mastiff. An on-field force of nature. And he’s not even halfway done.

Curran: Why it's time to update the Top 50 Under Belichick list

Gronk only burnished his on-field legend in 2015 with that otherworldly performance against the Broncos in the AFCCG. But after he mangled his back in 2016, things went awry off the field. He came back in 2017 and a push-pull between he and Bill Belichick over strength and conditioning ensued because Gronk wanted to do more of the TB12 pliability training and fewer weights. That lit the fuse on the budding Belichick-Tom Brady skirmish and the era of bad feeling entered.

Gronk kept turning in brilliant games -- the dominant 2017 performance at Pittsburgh; the nine-catch, 116-yard performance against the Eagles in SB52; the work he did in the 2018 AFCCG and Super Bowl win over the Rams.

But after that 2018 season, a battered Gronk prolonged his retirement announcement and submarined the Patriots' free agent hopes for Jared Cook. And in March 2020, after a year off, he forced his way to Tampa Bay.

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Scott Zolak thought Gronk was too low for the first list.

“I look at these ‘planet players’, yellow-jacket players, Hall of Famers?” said Zo. “You look at Rob Gronkowski and his talent. He should be a helluva lot higher than no. 9. He’s the greatest tight end that’s ever played.”

But what about the end? I have that “Patriotism” part of my criteria and Gronk was, after his final game here, actively making things hard for the Patriots. 

“Give him a pass on all that stuff,” said Christian Fauria. “If you want to talk about dying with a Patriots jersey on, that element, loyal to a fault? That’s (Julian) Edelman.”

It’s interesting to note that, as this list takes shape, 15 of the players I have in my still-evolving top 30 got at least a little sideways with Belichick. Some a lot more than others. But every other great player, to some degree, had a bout with Bill. That, Ted Johnson says, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Tom E. Curran's Top 50 Players Under Belichick, circa 2015

“(Gronk) was a handful,” said the former Patriots linebacker. “He was a lot at the end. But doesn't that tell you what Bill Belichick thought of him? Think about that: all the contract negotiations, they had. Think about the injuries that were an issue for Gronk, the parents getting involved. Is there another player that Bill would put up with all that stuff if he wasn’t the elite player he was?

“It shows you how phenomenal of a player and how impactful a player Gronk was when Bill would put up with a lot of what Gronk was doing,” he continued. “And it just tells me that Bill looks at Gronk in a whole different category. Almost like an LT. He was so good that they would put up with it. That's what Gronk was. The kind of guy who's in his own special category because that's how good he was.

"Bill put up with antics and things he never would have with any other player because he knew how special a player he was. That's how I see it. If you were to put this list together based on how it ended for some of these guys? It would be a weird list. There’s a lot of guys whose tenure didn’t end well but they still deserve to be up there."

Fair enough. And for the record, after 2015, what were Gronk’s numbers? Fifty games, 213 catches, 3,482 yards and 25 touchdowns. In the playoffs? Another eight games, 48 catches, 636 yards and six TDs.

Editor's note: Tom E. Curran's Top 50 players under Bill Belichick, 2.0, will be released beginning Monday, June 28 right here on NBCSportsBoston.com.