Gronk’s gone. We can only hope it’s not forever.
The immediate ramifications are obvious. The New England Patriots are one thing with Rob Gronkowski at tight end and another, lesser thing without him at tight end. But you don’t need me, Ben Volin, Bill Belichick, Ron Jaworski, or the ghost of George Halas to tell you this.
Regardless, do count me among those who believe the absence of Gronkowski will not be the reason you won’t be seeing the Patriots win that coveted fifth Super Bowl championship. We are all waiting to see the get-’em-off-the-field defense a Super Bowl champion usually needs. (I say “usually” because we didn’t see that type of defense in Super Bowl XLIX, either. But thanks to Pete Carroll’s ill-fated goal-line decision, and Malcolm Butler’s play for the ages, the Patriots escaped, anyway.)
Of course, I want to be wrong. But that’s the way I see it.
Let’s talk about Gronk’s legacy.
I am of the belief that when you talk about all-time greats in any sport it is necessary to differentiate between career achievement and short-term greatness. Sometimes we overlook athletic comets flashing across the sky. There are players of undeniable greatness in all sports who are unable to sustain their performance for the long, long haul because of injury. I’ll wager, for example, that legions of current NBA fans have no idea there was once a frightening force of nature by the name of Andrew Toney. He’s not in the Hall of Fame, and never will be. His career lasted from 1980-88. He played in 468 NBA games, but in his final three seasons he was only able to participate in 87 of a potential 246 games because of stress fractures in both feet, fractures that for a very long period went improperly diagnosed.
But, oh, those first five years. The man was unguardable. A 6-foot-3-inch guard with a great pro body, he could go right or left, shoot threes, take it to the hoop, and please don’t foul him. He played with what I can only describe as a contempt for defenders. As far as his battles with the Celtics were concerned, not for nothing was he nicknamed the “Boston Strangler.”
Larry Bird on Toney: “He was a killer . . . the absolute best I’ve ever seen at shooting the ball at crucial times. We had nobody who could come close to stopping him. Nobody.”
And Toney is forgotten by the general public today. It happens.
Will that happen to Gronk if his career is through (and I’m not saying it is)? Gronk has an outsized personality to accompany his athletic greatness. And there are those of us who believe that while he will not match the complete career accomplishments of, say, Tony Gonzalez, at his playing best he may very well be the best tight end who has ever played the game. Of course, that’s an opinion, and it will be debated.
Now, what if I told you there was a Gronk before Gronk? What if I told you there was a Gronk before Gronk who is not ever going into the Hall of Fame, a Gronk before Gronk who played only nine NFL seasons and was nowhere near his real self in four of those final five seasons because of a debilitating knee injury, a Gronk before Gronk whose official nickname was “Rambo,” a Gronk before Gronk who — and this is where we enter into the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up category — was even coached by the same guy who has borne witness to every second of Rob Gronkowski’s professional career?
Does the name Mark Bavaro ring a bell?
As recently as the fall of 2015, Bill Belichick thought it was necessary to pump the brakes on the public adulation of Gronkowski. That’s because during his run as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants back in the ’90s, Belichick had seen what he felt was some pretty amazing stuff from the team’s resident tight end, one Mark Bavaro, the pride of Danvers and Notre Dame.
Bavaro was a fourth-round draft pick in 1985. The Giants already had a pretty good tight end in Zeke Mowatt, but this kid immediately inserted himself into the picture.
He was a starter on the 1986 and 1990 Giants Super Bowl champs, and in that capacity he earned a reputation as the best combination pass receiver/blocker at his position. At least that’s the way the current HC of the NEP saw it in a pair of interviews from the fall of 2015. In fact, Belichick said you’d have to compare Gronkowski to Bavaro, not the other way around.
For example: “It would be hard for me to put anyone past Bavaro just because of the times he blocked Reggie White with no help. There was no double team; he just blocked him. Now that was a good battle. Reggie got him a few times, too.”
In another interview a short time later, Belichick said, “Mark’s in a really special category. His toughness, his overall complete play as a tight end and blocker, just as a total competitor, was just outstanding. I don’t think that any of us who coached him or played with him feel he has gotten the recognition we know he deserves.”
The coach also acknowledged the difference in numbers between Gronk and Bavaro (e.g. 68 receiving TDs for Gronk vs. 39 for Bavaro) to “different era, different game.”
One play in particular defines Bavaro, and I urge you to check it out. On Dec. 1, 1986, Bavaro caught a short pass from Phil Simms, and what happened after that was rather astonishing. He somehow tacked on 20-plus yards while dragging upward of seven — swear to God — 49ers with him, one being Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott. It does give you some idea of Bavaro’s greatness.
Mark Bavaro was the polar opposite of Rob Gronkowski in personality. I discovered that myself when he was an undergraduate at Notre Dame and I went to interview him as part of my then-job with Channel 5. He was a young man of very few words. Very few. Later on, he was a slightly older man of very few words. Very, very few. That never changed. He was neither a showman nor a pitchman. He was just a total football player and great teammate. His knee betrayed him and kept him from having the kind of career that winds up with someone giving a speech (in his case, a short one, I’m sure) in Canton, Ohio, on some hot July date.
But if Bill Belichick says Rob Gronkowski should be happy to be compared with Mark Bavaro, who needs the Hall of Fame?
Mark Bavaro. Remember the name.