FOXBOROUGH - Russ Francis famously was nicknamed “All-World’’ by Howard Cosell. Ben Coates was pretty darn good.
But have we ever seen a tight end like this around here?
He is The Gronk. Or The Gronkster. Or The Gronkmeister. He is Gronkabulous. He is 6 feet 7 inches and 260-odd pounds worth of a pass-catching, tackle-breaking, bronco-busting tight end, and after just 26 regular-season games as a professional he already may be at the top of his profession. He’s in the discussion, anyway.
Yes, there really is a name. In case you didn’t know, it’s Rob Gronkowski.
It really is difficult to imagine asking for anything more from a tight end, at least in terms of catching passes, than the Patriots are receiving from the 22-year-old Gronkowski. He is a massive target, he has great hands, and he’s not too bad in the YAC department, either. The Kansas City Chiefs doubtless would sign up as character witnesses after being subjected to Gronkowski’s spectacular performance against them in last night’s 34-3 Patriots victory.
“It looks like he caught a couple of passes, and he broke some tackles, like he usually does,’’ observed coach Bill Belichick. “Get him in the open field, and he’s a tough guy to bring down. He’s been doing that all year.’’
Midway through the second quarter, the Patriots were submitting an embarrassing offensive performance. Zoltan Mesko already had punted three times, Tom Brady had lost a fumble after being hit from behind, and the offense had not come close to attaining anything resembling a legitimate rhythm. And they were trailing, 3-0.
The Patriots were in rather serious need of a pick-me-up.
It was second and 7 on their 48. Brady found The Gronkster moving left to right, and the big man took it over from there, negotiating the remainder of the 52 yards down the right sideline while deftly remaining inbounds as his right foot came perilously close to the sideline on or about the Kansas City 6. He celebrated his TD with what has now become his signature spike, but unlike his moment of triumph against the Jets, this one will cost him nothing since he did it with no one within 10 yards of him.
There was a review, but the touchdown was properly validated. There had indeed been a wee bit of daylight between his foot and the sideline.
The touchdown was his ninth of the season, and it would have stood comfortably as the highlight play of the evening for most any other receiver. But he is The Gronkmeister, and he was just, as they say, warming up.
Move now to the third period. The Patriots are now in front, 10-3, facing third and 2 on the Kansas City 19. By this time the entire Western World knows that Rob Gronkowski has become Mr. Brady’s new official go-to guy. He again finds The Gronk moving to his right. Gronkowski catches the ball, again heads down the right sideline, takes a ferocious upending hit by Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson and flips into the end zone at the pylon, landing on his head. He then staggers to his feet, moves to the back of the end zone, and delivers yet another he-man spike. A bit showy, perhaps, but, hey, he earned it. He earns ’em all.
Thus we had 2011 touchdown No. 10, which, combined with the 10 TDs he scored during his rookie season, gave him the most by an NFL tight end in his first two seasons. We’re talking more than John Mackey, Ron Kramer, Mike Ditka, Dave Casper, Kellen Winslow, Tony Gonzalez, and any other iconic tight end you can name. Yup, even more than All-World Russ. More than anybody.
Gronkowski confessed that it all was a bit hard to digest. He talked about coming off the field, being met by a “Monday Night Football’’ crew from ESPN, and being informed he had just broken a record held by Ditka.
“It’s all pretty crazy,’’ he said. “Playing in the National Football League against guys you saw when you were in high school, or even middle school, is a dream come true.’’
He credited his being so wide open on touchdown No. 1 to a great play-action ball fake by Brady and excellent work by the rest of the offensive line. He modestly left out the running part. He would have had a harder time thanking so many people on the second touchdown because it was pretty much a matter of Brady finding a way to get him the ball and The Gronkmeister doing the rest.
“Whenever I get the ball, I just don’t want to go down,’’ he said. “I try to do something with the ball, just like a running back.’’
About the only mystery surrounding Gronkowski is how an enormous talent such as this could last until the second round of any draft. Then again, we can’t be too surprised that Coach Bill had at least a partial answer.
“The real issue was that he didn’t play in his entire junior year,’’ Belichick said. There was an injury, you see.
But the rest of it was quite evident.
“He’s got size, skill, hands,’’ Belichick said. “Works hard. Coaches like him. Got a lot going for him.’’
There’s something else about him, but it’s probably not something that matters a whole lot to Coach Bill. Good Lord, is this kid sheer fun to watch play football.
People have questioned some of Mr. Belichick’s recent draft picks. Not this one. On behalf of a grateful Patriots fandom, I’d like to say, “Coach Bill, Gronk you very much.’’