FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the topic of discussion is New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski's impact on games, it usually starts with touchdowns and his trademark “boom!” spikes. He’s a fantasy football machine.
On Wednesday, head coach Bill Belichick took it to another level.
Belichick said that in his 41 years of coaching in the NFL, Gronkowski is one of the two best blocking tight ends he’s ever had on his teams. The other is Mark Bavaro, the former New York Giant (1985-90).
Belichick also said that Gronkowski’s role as a team leader is “probably underrated.”
It was the highest of praise from Belichick, who has been chipper the last two days, his team 2-0 and preparing to host the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.
“He doesn’t really come across in that role,” Belichick acknowledged of Gronkowski as a leader, an apparent reference to public perception that is shaped by Gronkowski's off-field party-based persona. “He’s a great guy to have on the team; forget about the talent and all that. Just the way he goes about his job, the way he works and trains in the weight room, his physical conditioning; his mental concentration and focus to be well and do well and improve are very, very good.”
Teammates such as quarterback Tom Brady say what they see behind the scenes from Gronkowski is the essence of leadership.
Brady referenced Gronkowski’s work to overcome forearm, back and knee injuries in recent years, noting his physical and mental toughness. He also pointed out the things that Gronkowski does that don’t show up on the stat sheet.
“Obviously he gets a lot of attention for catching touchdown passes, but he does all the dirty work too,” said Brady, who has thrown 19 touchdowns to Gronkowski since the start of 2014 (including playoffs). “He’s in there blocking for those backs and in pass protection and takes a lot of pride in all those things. He’s been out there every day this year practicing as hard as he can, and I think it’s just showing a huge commitment by him to all of us players of what it means to him. I think he’s been a great example for all of us.”
Added second-year tight end Michael Williams, “When you think of Gronk or any of the other great tight ends, the first thing you think of is how well they catch the ball. To see him in practice and in games the way he blocks, it was almost like: ‘Wow! This is a complete tight end.’ It raised eyebrows for me.”
One of the most recent examples came on running back Dion Lewis' 6-yard touchdown jaunt against the Bills in Sunday’s 40-32 victory. Gronkowski powerfully turned defensive end Mario Williams to help open the hole.
It’s the type of play that highlights why Belichick has prioritized the tight end position over the years, specifically eyeing "combination" players who are effective as blockers and pass-catchers. They are rare.
Belichick said Wednesday that other than quarterback, there is probably no other position in the offense that is harder to play “because you have all the protections, all the running game and you have routes from the sideline to the middle of the field, to occasionally even in the backfield. There are really no plays off mentally for that position.”
Belichick then elaborated further, reflecting on Gronkowski’s rookie season in 2010 and how the team’s first preseason game was one in which Gronkowski was kept in to block on almost every snap and fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez released into pass routes. After that game, Belichick talked with then-offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien about how the team had to make a more concerted effort to get Gronkowski involved in the passing game.
The results have been better than anyone could have imagined, and at the same time, Gronkowski hasn’t lost his edge as a blocker.
“Rob takes a lot of pride in whatever he does. He takes pride in a good block just like he takes pride in a good catch or takes pride in breaking a tackle or, for that matter, recovering an onside kick,” Belichick said. “He’s been in a lot of different roles for us, but I can honestly say I’ve never seen him do anything but try his very best at those roles, whatever those happen to be. He’s not a one-dimensional player, and he sees football as a total team game, and he works hard at every aspect of it.”