Any day now, Rob Gronkowski will let us know what he has in store for his future.
Will he continue to be Tom Brady’s big-play weapon? Or is there a career-change in the offing for the greatest tight end in Patriots history?
For quite a while, the pendulum has been swinging toward retirement. Gronkowski could change his mind, of course, play out the final year of his deal and perhaps beyond. But there’s a 50-50 chance he’s going to walk away.
If Gronk does hang it up, what will it mean for Canton? Let’s just say it’s not likely he’ll rob himself of a gold jacket. Even though he will have only played nine seasons, with a body of statistics that aren’t exactly overwhelming, he should gain entry into the Hall of Fame at some point down the road. He was a dominant force during his run, a player that couldn’t be covered. With three rings and four first-team All-Pro awards on his resume, it’ll be hard to keep him out.
But is he a slam dunk first ballot? Will he go in on the first try, like tight end Tony Gonzalez just did with the Class of 2019?
That’s where it gets a little dicey.
Having consulted five members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee (there’s 48 on the panel), none of them would firmly commit to the notion. He’ll get in, there’s not much doubt about that. It’s just that no one is quite sure when. He might get passed over a few times, just like Ty Law.
Terez Paylor of Yahoo Sports, who presented Gonzalez’ case to the committee, pointed to statistics as one area that might get challenged in terms of Gronk’s first-ballot status.
“His stats aren’t as high as some of these other guys (who are in). But there’s no doubt he’s the most complete tight end of his era. But with his stats, there might be some discussion on whether he’d be a first ballot guy, or not,” said Paylor. “I can see it playing out where he might have to wait a little bit. But he’s done enough to wear a jacket. Rob Gronkowski will be a Hall of Famer one day. He passes that eye test. He made so many big plays in so many big games. He’s won so many rings. It’s going to happen. It just comes down to when. I don’t know the answer to that. But, there’s no doubt he’ll wear that jacket one day. It’s just a matter of when he’ll get put in.”
There are nine tight ends currently in the Hall. Gonzalez, the latest to get the nod and the only tight end to go in on the first ballot, played 17 seasons. He amassed 1,325 receptions for 15,127 yards with 111 touchdowns. There are no championships on his resume. Prior to Gonzalez, Shannon Sharpe was enshrined in 2011. He played 14 seasons. He had 815 catches for 10,060 yards with 62 touchdowns. Sharpe was part of three Super Bowl winning teams. He wasn’t a first ballot choice.
Gronk’s numbers? He has 521 receptions, 7,861 yards and 79 touchdowns. That puts him more in line with Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow, who also played nine seasons (541 catches, 6741 yards, 45 TDs).
“Everybody wants guys to be first-ballot guys. And they make it sound like they’re no-brainers. The issue with him will be the brevity of his career,” said Mike Chappell, who covers the Colts for Fox59 sports in Indy. “I would almost compare him to (former Lions receiver) Calvin Johnson, who played eight or nine years. He’s way down the list in terms of career stats. But gosh, when he played, he was elite.”
Johnson isn’t due to be on the ballot for another few years. He will be another interesting test case. Whenever Gronkowski retires, he might fall in the same boat.
“If someone said first ballot, I’d say let’s pump the brakes. But then when you look at the body of work when he played at the position, you want difference makers . . . I’m thinking it’ll come down to the Calvin Johnson argument,” Chappell said with regard to Gronk. “He was good enough, but did he play long enough, and if he did play long enough, how long will he have to wait, and how soon will he get in? But I’d pump the brakes on first ballot. To me, there’s always a ton of boxes you have to check for first ballot. And one is longevity.”
Is being a first ballot such a big deal? There shouldn’t be any shame in waiting, or getting pushed back a few times. If you get in, you get in, it shouldn’t matter when. But like with any sport, there’s an added status with making it on the first ballot.
If you ask former Herald columnist Ron Borges, who did a great job presenting Law this year, helping push the former Patriots corner through, there aren’t many first ballot locks. Think Johnny Unitas, Jim Brown, and, down the road, Tom Brady.
“I think first ballot has become the most overrated, overhyped, over-discussed thing in history. That’s why the Hall of Fame Committee has lost their minds,” he said. “We put in eight first ballot Hall of Famers in the last three years. Give me a break. How can Champ Bailey be a first ballot Hall of Famer, and Ty Law is not, when Ty Law exceeds him in every quantifiable statistical area of playing the position? How is that possible? But it happened.
“We put in 35 first-ballot Hall of Famers since the turn of the century, or the last 19 years,” Borges went on. “In the previous 37 years, 42. So it’s become cheapened in my humble opinion.”
That being said, and without truly studying Gronkowski’s numbers, Borges fell in line with most of the rest in saying he believed the Patriots tight end would ultimately get in.
“The upside for him is that he’d be a first-team All-Decade player in this upcoming decade at the position. That would be a plus,” said Borges. “He’s a four-time first team All-Pro, which is huge. There aren’t many of those. The negatives, however, is that he’s only played in 115 games. That’s number one. Number two, in terms of career receptions and career yards, there’s over 100 players in both categories who have been more productive.”
Gronkowski is currently tied for 28th on the NFL’s all-time list in touchdowns (79) with former Eagle Harold Carmichael and former Redskin Charley Taylor. He’s 130th in receptions, and 104th in receiving yards. By the time he’ll come up for voting, which won’t be for another five years down the road if he retires now, he’ll drop further down those lists.
“Do I think he’s a first ballot Hall of Famer? No, not at the moment,” said Borges. “If he continues playing, and puts up some more numbers, then maybe he becomes one. Do I think he’s a Hall of Famer? He’s got a very strong case. I would be shocked if he wasn’t in the room to be debated. I mean, that’s the first thing, you gotta get in the room. If you don’t get in the room, none of the rest of it matters.”
The Committee names 15 finalists. Through debate on the Saturday before the Super Bowl, that number is whittled to 10, then five, putting senior candidates aside.
“We’d say, if you’re the best at your position during your era, which I would argue that he is, I would think eventually he’d get in the Hall of Fame,” said Borges. “Is it automatic? No. Is it a slam dunk? No. Is it first ballot? I don’t really think so.”
John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, meanwhile, won’t be pumping any brakes. He has absolutely no reservation about saying he believes Gronk, who has more receiving yards from Brady than any player, is a first ballot guy.
“Wes Welker is the best slot receiver I’ve ever seen, but Gronk’s the best weapon Brady’s ever had,” said McClain. “(Randy) Moss had that great year, but then he was gone like a shooting star. I believe Gronkowski is going to go in the Hall of Fame without a doubt and is worthy of that first ballot.
“I’ve been watching football since 1960. When you think about the combination of size, the speed he had at that size, and being an underrated blocker, and being able to line up at so many different spots, his career average is over 15 yards (per catch). I’ll say this, when Gronk is eligible, I’ll vote for him. To me, he’s a no-brainer if he never plays another play.”
NFL Media’s Jim Trotter didn’t want to get into a debate about a player who wasn’t officially on the ballot. But he did make a few interesting points about the process.
One was that when Gronk is ultimately eligible, an important factor will be what other tight ends will also be under consideration. It’s possible former Cowboy Jason Witten, who’s eligible soon, will still be trying to get in. Charger Antonio Gates might also be in the mix at that point. It’s possible they’ll all cancel each other out if they’re together at the same time.
“Clearly he’s had a decorated career. He’s going to be worthy of discussion. I’m not saying he is or isn’t going to be a Hall of Famer,” Trotter said of Gronk. “There’s so many factors that go into play when a guy goes into the Hall of Fame including who else is in that class, who else has a candidacy.”
Added Borges: “It’s circumstances, it’s who else is on the ballot, who’s been waiting, who hasn’t been waiting. But when you look at Gronk, he’s a legitimate all-purpose, all around tight end. He blocks like crazy. He catches, he runs, he scores touchdowns. He checks off all the boxes at the position. Not everyone does.”
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