By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It’s pretty obvious that Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in all of football. And that’s not just in the present day, as he will probably go down as the greatest tight end to ever take the field.
He’s also known to have a bit of fun when he’s not catching passes from Tom Brady (or Jimmy Garoppolo) and dragging defenders down the field with him. That party animal persona has turned Gronk into much more than a football player. It also, at times, makes him look like, for lack of a better word, a meathead. But that couldn’t be further from who Gronkowski really is.
The MMQB took over the newest issue of Sports Illustrated, a special all-football edition, and paints a picture of Gronkowski of being not just the best tight end in the game, but the smartest. If you talk football with Gronk, there’s a good chance you’ll be the one that has to play catch up in the conversation.
He can break down opposing defenses with ease, and identify coverages in a matter of seconds. He knows every route that is to be run by the New England offense on a given play. He knows every run-blocking assignment, and not just on his side of the field. That’s why if Brady every flips the play, Gronkowski is prepared.
“Rob is a versatile athlete, but he’s also a versatile guy mentally. He can handle a lot of different assignments. Some guys can’t,” Bill Belichick told the MMQB. “Either they mentally can’t do it, or it’s just too much and their game slows down. They don’t play to the same skill set you see athletically because they’re thinking too much. That’s not the case with Rob.”
Belichick said the tight end position is the hardest in the New England offense besides the quarterback, because they do all the “formationing” on the field.
“The running back is usually in the backfield. The receivers are receivers. But the tight ends could be in their tight end location, they could be in the backfield, they could be flexed. They could be in the wide position. To formation the defense, those are the guys you’re going to move. It’s moving the tight ends that changes the defensive deployment,” said Belichick.
The praise doesn’t just come from Belichick, as many opposing coaches also share their thoughts on Gronkowski — an absolute nightmare to game plan for.
“It’s tough to cover the guy no matter where they put him,” said Buffalo head coach Rex Ryan, who has had the pleasure of preparing for Gronk 11 times during his time with the Bills and New York Jets. “They can put him at the outside position, they can put him in the slot, they can put him flexed or on the line of scrimmage, they move him all over the place, so you have to be dialed in on where he is. And you know he’s a guy that can run, but his size is probably the most imposing thing. And the other thing is he’s a guy that will flat go get the football. So you definitely have to be mindful of where he’s at.”
It wasn’t always this way, as Gronkowski admitted to the MMQB’s Andy Benoit that when he first came into the league, he was strictly a route-runner. But under the tutelage — and fury — of Brady, that changed quickly.
“At first he just tells you what to do. If you don’t get it right after that, he’ll come at you hard. He’d come at you really hard back in the day. He’s not really like that anymore, at age 39. But back in the day, like six years ago, he used to come at me hard if I didn’t do it right,” explained Gronkowski, recalling one particular play in practice during his rookie season.
“Tom wanted me to get outside leverage on this flag route, and I just couldn’t. I just kept going inside. And he just flipped out on me about it. He said, ‘All right, the ball’s not going to you then,’” Gronkowski remembers. “So finally I just started learning, All right, I’ve got to get outside.”
With that, Gronkowski began to understand the importance of technique. It’s a lesson he hasn’t forgotten, and continues to improve in his seventh NFL season.
“Having defenders think you’re going somewhere else. And always remembering to run what looks like the same route as before, but boom: At the top you stick it off one way or you stick it off the other. But all the way to the top of the route, it looks the same. I’ve worked on that a lot throughout my career,” he said.
It’s no surprise that Gronkowski is enthusiastic (dare we say, “super” enthusiastic) to be the best he can possibly be between the numbers and in the film room. And while he still has his fun, he’s found that perfect balance of being a superstar athlete that keeps getting better and lovable lug who has a great time off the field.
It’s a balance that many players have a hard time with, and for those that master it, they often find themselves the envy of the locker room. But that is not the case with New England’s behemoth tight end.
“Some guys in his position would be envied—and not in a good way—by his teammates. Not Rob. They admire him because he can be a nightlife guy and at the same time one of the hardest workers in the locker room,” said one Patriots insider.
New England fans have been spoiled with what Gronkowski has brought to the team since 2010; in awe of his ridiculous athletic ability on the field and entertained by his harmless antics has off of it. But now, we’re getting a look at all the hard work he puts in to being that game-changer, and it creates a visual that not many expected.
Rob Gronkowski: The smartest tight end in all of football. It’s just another reason why he’s the best in the game, and we may never see another like him.