FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When it comes to the history of the NFL and where players rank among the all-time greats, Gil Brandt and Ernie Accorsi provide a unique, credible perspective based on their longevity, success in evaluating personnel and résumés of helping build competitive teams.
So when it comes to Rob Gronkowski …
“If I were to put him where he belongs, if you take the top five tight ends ever, he is probably right there in the middle at three,” said Brandt, the longtime vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys (1960-1988) who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019. “I think [Tony] Gonzalez is probably better. I think [Kellen] Winslow is probably better. But I think when we hash it out at the end, he’ll be right up there with the top three to five players.”Brandt, whose scouting-based contributions to football have been praised by New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick as being Hall of Fame-worthy, puts Mike Ditka and John Mackey in the top-five conversation, as well.
Meanwhile, Accorsi didn’t hesitate elevating Gronkowski into the elite ranks.
“I don’t know where you put him — there’s always opinions — but he’s one of the greatest to play the game, if not the greatest. There’s no question about that,” Accorsi said before noting the similarities between Gronkowski and late Green Bay Packers tight end Ron Kramer (1957-1967).
“Same type of player — ran over people. If you go back and look at the film of the 1961 championship game when the Packers beat the Giants 37-0, [Kramer] was the hero of that game, scored two touchdowns,” Accorsi said. “Gronkowski [6-foot-6] is a little bigger. [Kramer] was 6-3 and an all-around athlete who won nine letters at Michigan. He’s in the College Football Hall of Fame and could be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was so much like Gronkowski.”
Accorsi said some of the things that separate Gronkowski from others are his performance in the clutch, the matchup issues he presented defenses and how he was open even when he was covered.
“His last big catch, in the Super Bowl, defines who he is to me,” said Accorsi, who served as an assistant general manager or general manager from the mid-1970s to 2007 with the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and New York Giants. “It was a sluggish offensive game, nobody could really get anything done, and it was no surprise to anyone that [Tom] Brady is going to come up with a touchdown to win it, and who makes the play? Gronkowski almost willed himself down the field to make that catch that set up the winning touchdown. That’s him.”The great ones, to me, are Mackey, Ditka. But Mackey was shorter. Mackey was probably faster but didn’t have the hands Gronkowski had — even though he never dropped the ball. He knew he was a body-catcher, and that was keeping him out of the Hall of Fame for a while. Winslow, who was more of a receiver. Gonzalez, obviously, caught a million passes, and he’s in there, too. Ron Kramer.”
This year, Gonzalez became the ninth tight end to earn induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, joining Dave Casper (1974-1984), Ditka (1961-1972), Mackey (1963-1972), Ozzie Newsome (1978-1990), Charlie Sanders (1968-1977), Shannon Sharpe (1990-2003), Jackie Smith (1963-1978) and Winslow (1979-1987).
The list serves as a reminder of how the tight end position has changed over the years.
“Gonzalez played a long time and caught a lot of passes. Winslow came along, and he brought the new era to the tight end,” said Brandt, who compares Gronkowski’s style of play most to Ditka’s. “We looked at Mackey — and yeah, he was a tight end and caught a touchdown pass to win a game against the Cowboys in the Super Bowl — but he was really, No. 1, a blocker first and a receiver second. I think in Gonzalez’s case, he was a receiver first and a blocker second.”Gronkowski is unique, because if you graded on a scale, you’d give him the same grade for receiving as blocking. In Winslow, as an example, he’d have a higher grade for receiving, lower grade for blocking. [Gronkowski] in his prime, he was a cut above everyone else [in his era]. He was bigger, faster, more talented, more athletic than other players at that position.
“It’s hard comparing [Gronkowski] to John Mackey, because we throw the ball so much more to tight ends. We do so much more to get them open than ever before. The tight end used to line up at the end of the line, and really, his first job was to be a blocker, not a receiver. Now, we play two tight ends and both of them can be equally as good as blocking and receiving, and it destroys the tendencies that the defense has of playing strongside and weakside.”
No one, arguably, has fit that bill more than Gronkowski.
“I don’t have a vote, but to me, he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer and there’s no question about it,” Accorsi said. “With all the great plays he’s made, I love people who make the play with the championship on the line. I just think that last catch typifies his career.”