Most historians credit former Michigan and Green Bay star Ron Kramer as the first "real" player at the position. "He was the prototype," Packers quarterback Bart Starr once told me. At a shade over 6-3 and 235-240 pounds, Kramer had nearly the mass of an offensive lineman and was quick enough to get downfield and catch passes. Before Kramer, Starr said, "A lot of teams would simply go with an extra running back flanked out in the slot between the offensive line and the wide receiver. Or they'd put an extra wide receiver out there. Ron was the first guy who could both catch and block." But good he was, Kramer belonged to a certain time and place in NFL history—he never caught more than six passes in a game, or gained more than 87 yards. And while that makes for a worthy prototype, Bart Starr never had to deal with anything like what's going to line up at tight end this Super Bowl.
Robert Paxton Gronkowski is the best player at football's most demanding position. To be a tight end in the NFL, you have to be able to block like a Coke machine or have hands soft enough to catch a baby dropped out of a eighth-story window. To be a great tight end, you have to be able to do both, which very few players in the game's history have been able to do.
Among the nearly 250 players in the Hall of Fame, there are only eight tight ends. This owes to the fact that the Pro Football HoF is notoriously light on non-skill position players, and tight end's relatively recent rise as a position of emphasis. But tight end's truancy as a position is in large part due to the fact there are very few human beings who can play the position as it's played today.
"It's almost not fair," says Baltimore Ravens ace linebacker Terrell Suggs, whose team lost a thriller in the playoffs to New England, 35-31. "You go up to the line of scrimmage against the Patriots, and the first thing you notice is that they've got six offensive linemen. That's what it's like facing Gronk."
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels claims that Gronkowski is the only tight end in the league who is equally adept at run and pass blocking. "He's one of the best drive-blockers in the game," he says. "We have no second thoughts about running, say, a 4th-and-1 play behind him." As for pass blocking, "A lot of tight ends, even good ones, get by with just chopping at a blitzing linebacker. Not Gronk—he takes it as a personal insult if a pass rusher gets by him."
As a receiver, Gronkowski has no equal. When he peels off the offensive line and catches a short toss from Tom Brady over the middle most linebackers would probably agree with Suggs' sentiment: "I ain't used to giving away ten pounds to a guy I'm supposed to tackle." Suggs weighs in about 255-260; Gronk, at 6-6, is 265-270. When he heads towards the sidelines, catches the ball, squares his shoulder and turns upfield, defensive backs, who are not used to being mismatched by 60-70 pounds, turn pale.
Tight end is the most undervalued position in pro football, the one that, with the right player, can give a team the biggest bang for its buck. When estimating Gronkowski's value to the Patriots, start with this: in five seasons he has averaged 14.2 yds/reception. That's wide receiver-type yardage. (Year in, year out, a tight end will get you 9-11 yds/catch and a good wide receiver usually 13-15. Chicago's Martellus Bennett lead the league's tight ends in caches with 90, but averaged only 10.2 yds/grab with 6 TDs, half as many as Gronk.) New England's two leading wideouts, Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell, didn't come close. Edelman, who caught 92 balls for a 10.6 yds/catch average; LaFell had 74 for 12.9. Together they had 11 TDs, one less than Gronkowski, who had 82 catches for 12 TDs even though he sat out the last game against Buffalo. This gives you a good idea of who Brady will be looking for in the Super Bowl on critical third down situations.
What makes Gronk so doubly dangerous is that he can scoot quickly downfield and catch the ball deep in the seams of zone coverage or catch a short pass, shake off a couple of tacklers, and burn opponents for a long gain—especially important given Brady isn't great at throwing those deep balls—as he did in the Pats' 42-20 victory over the Coils on November 16. Watch it from two angles, and stick around after the score for Gronk's victory dance.
Think about Gronkowski's value to New England yet another way. Tom Brady did not have a particularly good season in 2014. Though he was 5th among the league's QBs in overall passer rating, 97.4, with 33 TDs against just 9 interceptions. But he was an eye-opening 21st in the most significant passing stat, simple yards/throw, at 7.06. (By way of comparison, the QB he's up against on Sunday, the Seahawks' Russell Wilson, was 8th at 7.69 yds/throw.) The only time this year that Brady looked better than mediocre during the regular season was when he threw to Gronk.
Like all great tight ends since Kramer— Mike Ditka, John Mackey, Dave Casper, Todd Christiansen, Ozzie Newsome, Kellen Winslow, Tony Gonzalez, and Antonio Gate — Gronkowski is a match-up nightmare. Over the decades, defenses have had to choose between a really strong strong-side safety—SSs are usually bigger than their free safety teammates because they have to line up on the same side of the field as the tight end—or a very, very quick linebacker.
To try and neutralize the Gronk factor, the Seahawks are going with Kam Chancellor, a two-time second team All-Pro team selection who is listed on the roster as a strong safety. But at 6-3 and 232, he has the size more associated with a linebacker. Even at that, Chancellor will be giving away three inches and as much as 35 pounds to Gronk.
Which brings up yet another facet of Gronkowski's value: when he does nothing at all. When some teams are faced with the Gronk-dilemma, they're afraid to blitz, fearing that Brady will quickly read the defense and order Gronkowski into the hole the pass rusher has just vacated. That's when really big gains happen. But the no-blitz scenario also leaves Gronk free to double team on a defensive lineman with an offensive tackle—thus providing Brady with even more pass protection. This sort of dedicated quasi-spy is the kind of thing very few players demand, and it's the kind of throwing-your-hands-up, just-what-the-hell-do-we-do-now tactic you find at the edges of football's evolution, the same with Gronk as it ever was with Ron Kramer.
Allen Barra's most recent book is Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball's Age. Follow him on Twitter here.