It takes a lot for a tight end to impress a future Hall of Famer like Tony Gonzalez.
Gonzalez defined the position of the modern tight end during 17 NFL seasons — including 12 with the Chiefs —as someone big, fast and strong who caught more passes than anyone who played the position.
So when Gonzalez, on an assignment for CBS Sports, met New England tight end Rob Gronkowski, he was awed by the next generation of an NFL tight end.
“When he walks into a room, he’s 6-6, 6-7 and 265-270 pounds,” said Gonzalez, no runt himself at 6-5, 247. “When you watch him run, he runs like a deer. He catches the ball great with his hands. He has a Hall of Fame quarterback, arguably one of the best if not the best quarterback to ever play the game, throwing him the ball. It’s an unstoppable combination between him and Tom Brady.”
Gronkowski, who caught 82 passes for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns in the regular season and has added another 10 catches for 136 yards and two touchdowns in two postseason games, was a key factor the Patriots reaching Super Bowl XLIX against Seattle.
“I love watching him,” Gonzalez said. “The way he runs his routes … he is just bigger, stronger and faster, and anybody you put out there against him cannot guard him man-to-man. If you put one guy on him, he is going to shred you. The only way to stop him is to put two guys on him, maybe a guy bumping him at the line of scrimmage, a guy over the top … down in the red zone, it’s lights out.
“Right now, he is easily the best tight end in the NFL because he also blocks, which is an important part of the position. He’s a guy who doesn’t come off the field in the run game. If it’s third and 1, he’s at the point of attack putting those meat hooks on people.”
It’s been a bounce-back season for Gronkowski, who played in just seven games last season because of a back injury and 11 games in 2012 before finishing the season on injured reserve with a broken arm.
And even in 2011, after Gronkowski caught 90 passes and set NFL tight end records with 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns, he was hobbled by an ankle injury during the Patriots’ Super Bowl loss to the Giants, catching just two passes for 26 yards.
“I definitely don’t take the game for granted anymore,” Gronkowski said. “It feels good not to get any questions asked about my health, no doubt. It feels good to be 100 percent healthy and 100 percent ready to roll for this game. Last Super Bowl, every question was about my ankle. My ankle is 100 percent. I’m totally back to my old self.”
Actually, Gronkowski, bothered by sore knees, began the season slowly, catching just 13 passes for 147 yards and three touchdowns during the Patriots’ 2-2 start, including just two for 31 yards in New England’s 41-14 loss at Kansas City. But Gronkowski, like the rest of his teammates, turned his season around the next week in a 43-17 win over Cincinnati when he caught six passes for 100 yards and a touchdown.
“Coming out of training camp I got competitive and treated my knees all week,” Gronkowski said. “Going into that Cincinnati game in week five, everything just kicked in.”
When Gronkowski caught a 14-yard pass in a win over San Diego on Dec. 2, he became the first tight end in NFL history with four 10-touchdown seasons, further expanding his status as the new-breed tight end.
“Growing up as a kid, I watched Jeremy Shockey … Tony Gonzalez … Antonio Gates,” said Gronkowski. “I looked up to them. I watched what they did to be successful.”
The Patriots line up Gronkowski all over the field, making him what Gonzalez calls “a mismatch nightmare.” In 2011, Gronkowski even ran for a touchdown out of the backfield.
“They’ll bring him out of the backfield, they’ll put him at fullback, H-back, you’ll see Gronkowski line up as a receiver and go one-on-one with a guy,” Gonzalez said. “It’s the way the league has been trending, and you’re going to see even more of that.
“It really comes down to size. You put the ball in my area, and he says, ‘I’ll use the framework of my body and you’re not going to be able to stop me.’ ”
Stopping Gronkowski will be the job of Seattle linebacker K.J. Wright and strong safety Kam Chancellor.
“The quarterback throws it to him often,” Wright said. “He reminds me of Tony Gonzalez with just his finesse and always finding a way to get yards after the catch.
“You’ve got to make sure that wherever he’s out on the football field, keep your eyes on him because more likely the ball is coming his way. When he does catch them, we’ve got to hit him, tackle him, get him down and make sure he doesn’t get those yards after the catch.”
Gronkowski developed his physical skills growing up in a football family. Two of his brothers have played in the NFL. Dan Gronkowski spent time with Detroit (2009) and Denver (2010) and as a teammate of Rob’s with the Patriots in 2011, and Chris Gronkowski spent 2011-13 with four different teams. Youngest brother Glenn Gronkowski is a fullback at Kansas State.
The entire family, including their father, Gordon, who played guard at Syracuse during 1977-81, will ride into Phoenix this weekend on the celebrated family party bus.
“It’s on its way down right now,” Gronkowski said. “Body Armor wrapped it up in this (covering). It can’t get into the parking lot at Gillette Stadium (in Foxborough) because of the Body Armor sponsor, but it’s all good.
“I’m sure there will be some pictures with it and all that good stuff.”