By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — You have to give credit to the voting bloc which guards the gate of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Those folks can create a debate out of thin air.
But, if you’ve paid attention at all to their exploits in recent years, you should also conclude that it’s time for a complete revolution when it comes to the entire structure of the Hall of Fame voting process. These people appear to be drunk on their own “power.”
The most recent entry into the log comes from Karen Guregian’s story for the Boston Herald. The premise of Guregian’s story was straightforward: If Rob Gronkowski never plays another down in the NFL, is he an automatic lock to make the Hall of Fame? And will he make it to the Hall on the first ballot?
The answer to anyone who observes, understands, and enjoys the sport of football is an obvious yes. To both questions. There’s been no more dominant tight end in the history of the sport. Gronkowski may not have the pure volume numbers of some tight ends who played much longer, but over the course of the 2010s decade, there was simply no greater force at tight end than No. 87 for the Patriots.
Yes, he’s a Hall of Famer. Yes, he’s a first ballot Hall of Famer — because someone either is or is not a Hall of Famer, so if someone is an obvious Hall of Famer, then that person ought to receive enough votes for entry as soon as he’s available.
That is common sense.
But as we know, the Hall voters aren’t generally guided by common sense. Even some of the voters themselves agree.
“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,” former Herald columnist Ron Borges told Guregian in the story.
Borges presented Law’s case to the voting committee, only succeeding to convince the voters that the obvious Hall of Famer was actually Hall of Famer after three years of trying. The case for Law didn’t change much over those three years; he didn’t pick off any more passes, he didn’t sack any quarterbacks, and he didn’t win any more Super Bowls. Yet, after being a finalist for two years, Law finally earned entry to the Hall this year.
Based on the voters Guergian talked to, it appears as though the same fate might await Gronkowski.
The reason those voters give? Stats.
“His stats aren’t as high as some of these other guys [in the Hall],” Terez Paylor told Guergian. “With his stats, there might be some discussion on whether he’d be a first ballot guy, or not.”
This is a joke.
The reason this is a joke is because Terrell Owens, who ranked second all time in receiving yards and third all time in receiving touchdowns, was kept out of the Hall of Fame until his third year of eligibility. There was no rational reason to explain this delay, other than the voters didn’t like him personally. (The same Hall of Fame that still includes a virtual shrine to O.J. Simpson and feels compelled to judiciously assess the Hall of Fame worthiness of a convicted rapist.) They twisted their brains into pretzels trying to make it sound like a level-headed decision-making process, but it was very clearly a case of the pettiest pettiness shining through.
So, please, dear voters of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, spare us with the “stats” argument.
Gronkowski has caught 521 passes for 7,861 yards and 79 touchdowns, plus one more touchdown that was recorded as a rushing score. He’s scored 80 touchdowns in 115 games played, averaging 68.4 yards per game and 0.69 touchdowns per game.
Tony Gonzalez, a statistical monster at tight end who played 17 seasons, averaged 56 yards per game 0.41 TDs per game.
Shannon Sharpe, a revolutionary Hall of Fame tight end in his own right, averaged 49.3 yards per game and 0.30 TDs per game.
One of the voters in Guregian’s story compares Gronkowski’s relatively short (nine-year) career to that of Calvin Johnson, but that’s wholly inaccurate. Gronkowski should be compared to Barry Sanders, a man who was very clearly the best player at his position for an extended period and just may lay claim to being the best of all time. Sanders was, of course, a first ballot Hall of Famer, despite playing just 10 seasons.
The difference between Sanders and Gronkowski is that Sanders did in fact accumulate enough stats to rank very highly on the all-time lists. But there are two factors with Gronkowski and statistics that are already being ignored:
1. Gronkowski is equally as dominant as a blocker as he is in the passing game. This is something that gets stated and repeated ad nauseam, to the point where it could almost lose its meaning. But it is true. Trying to find footage of Gronkowski getting beaten or overmatched as a blocker in both the run and pass game would require significant work. He’s played a significant role in all facets of an offense that has ranked no worse than fourth in the NFL in scoring since he was drafted in 2010.
2. Gronkowski is the most dominant playoff tight end in the history of the NFL.
Even though Gronkowski’s per-game stats in the regular season are better than anyone else’s, his lack of volume stats is already being used to build a case against him. Why, though, are his postseason stats being ignored?
As one astute, shrewd, and pulchritudinous sports writer documented last week, Gronkowski’s played 16 playoff games. And in those 16 games (really, it’s more like 14 games), he’s put together the second-best season of his career — which is really saying something for a fellow who’s put together some incredible seasons.
In the playoffs, Gronkowski has caught 81 passes for 1,163 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Even if you include the game where he left in the first quarter with a broken arm, and even if you include his one-legged attempt to play in Super Bowl XLVI, Gronkowski’s per-game averages of 72.7 yards and 0.75 touchdowns are better than his regular-season numbers. (If you exclude those two games, he’s really averaged 81.2 yards and 0.86 touchdowns per game in the playoffs.)
Among his contemporaries, Gronkowski stands alone.
CAREER PLAYOFF STATS
Rob Gronkowski: 16 games, 81 rec., 1,163 yards, 12 TDs
Dallas Clark: 12 games, 64 rec., 847 yards, 4 TDs
Shannon Sharpe: 18 games, 62 rec., 814 yards, 4 TDs
Antonio Gates: 12 games, 51 rec., 540 yards, 2 TDs
Jason Witten: 8 games, 45 rec. 486 yards, 1 TD
Tony Gonzalez: 7 games, 30 rec., 286 yards, 4 TDs
Some quick math here, and it would seem as though Gronkowski’s 12 playoff touchdowns in 16 games are more than the Sharpe/Gates/Witten/Gonzalez quartet’s combined 11 playoff touchdowns in 45 games.
It’s no surprise, then, that Gronkowski has won two Super Bowls — something that probably should come up in the Hall of Fame discussion. (Gronkowski owns a third ring, too, though his 2016 season was cut short due to injury, with back surgery preventing him from playing in the postseason.)
That certainly factored in to Troy Aikman’s candidacy. The quarterback didn’t have the lengthiest career, and his regular-season numbers weren’t spectacular. The league has obviously seen an uptick in passing, but still: Aikman ranks 38th in career passing yards, 73rd in career touchdown passes, and he’s thrown the 66th-most interceptions. But he won three Super Bowls. So he made the Hall of Fame. On his first ballot.
On the other end of the spectrum, as Borges pointed out, Champ Bailey was for some reason a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He led the league in interceptions once. He made three All-Pro teams. Despite his first name, he never won a Super Bowl. He only played in one Super Bowl, in his final season at age 35, a game which his Broncos lost 43-8.
At tight end, Sharpe won three Super Bowls — twice with John Elway’s Broncos, and once with the 2000 Ravens. In those three championship postseasons, Sharpe caught a total of 27 passes for 457 yards and two touchdowns. In Gronkowski’s two championship postseasons, he’s caught 29 passes for 395 yards and three touchdowns. Sandwiched between those championship postseasons was a 15-catch, 227-yard, three-touchdown postseason in 2015, and a 16-catch, 218-yard, three-touchdown postseason in 2017. That included a nine-catch, 116-yard, two-touchdown performance in the Patriots’ Super Bowl loss to the Eagles.
In his three healthy Super Bowls, Gronkowski has averaged seven receptions, 90 yards, and a touchdown per game. He scored a touchdown in the win over the Seahawks, who boasted an all-time great defense, and he made a diving catch to set up the lone touchdown of the Super Bowl LIII victory over the Rams.
Against the best competition, in the biggest games of the year, Gronkowski has been at his absolute best. Considering the 22 men on the field show up every Sunday with the goal of winning football games, that ought to count for something.
And while nine seasons (two of which were cut in half due to injury) have not been enough for Gronkowski to rank highly in all-time receiving yards, he still ranks third all time among tight ends in touchdowns. That, too, ought to count for something.
And, looking at eight modern era tight ends currently enshrined in Canton, Gronkowski has scored more touchdowns than all of them. Despite the relatively short career, Gronkowski’s 7,861 yards would have him ranked behind only three of that group (Sharpe, Ozzie Newsome, Jackie Smith). Add in his full season’s worth of excellence in the postseason — something to which no other Hall of Fame tight end can compare — and Gronkowski’s accomplished as much if not more than any tight end in the history of the sport.
It’s really not all that complicated. Yet the Imperial Guards Of Canton — who in a totally and completely self-aware manner refer to themselves as “elite members of the Selection Committee” — could complicate the pouring of a glass of milk.
Yes, even if he never plays another down in the NFL, Rob Gronkowski is a Hall of Famer. Yes, he ought to go in on the first ballot. No, it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things — but the over-complication of a simple process is becoming a bit of a distinctive and reliable trait of the Hall of Fame voting process. It’s probably time for a change.