Mark Bavaro does not spend a lot of time these days watching the New England Patriots, or the NFL in general.
But the Danvers native, a former All-Pro tight end and two-time Super Bowl champion with the New York Giants, certainly knows greatness when he sees it — particularly at the position he dominated for much of the 1980s.
And Bavaro knows what he saw in Rob Gronkowski, who announced his retirement from the New England Patriots Sunday night: a game changing tight end who ranks among the best who ever played.
“To me, there’s no question he’s a Hall of Famer,” said the 55-year-old Bavaro, who like Gronkowski played tight end for nine years in the NFL. “Aside from his touchdowns (79), his numbers might not put him up with the top group of (modern) tight ends; his numbers weren’t eye popping. But we know he was the best of that pack.”
Bavaro does not know Gronkowski personally, but certainly respected him as a player and said he would’ve “been a fan of his regardless of where he played.” The main reason why is something that the former Danvers High School and Notre Dame All-American took immense pride in during his own gridiron career: being a complete tight end who could protect the pocket, run block, block downfield, catch passes, break multiple tackles after the catch and take on any number of defenders, whether it’s a defensive end, outside linebacker or blitzing cornerback.
“Rob sticks out like a sore thumb in the way he plays. He’s what a tight end should be, not just a guy who catches passes,” Bavaro said. “Being a good blocker is part of the job description, and it’s good to see guys who actually know how to do that.
“The Patriots were never really a big run heavy team, and I don’t think they ever really relied on Rob’s blocking ability his first eight years or so; he could do it, but they just didn’t need him to. Look at what he did at the end of the season and in the playoffs, the way he blocked against Kansas City and in the Super Bowl against the Rams. He proved he can block really, really well and I was very impressed.”
“George Kittle (of the San Francisco 49ers) is another guy who epitomizes what a tight end should be,” added Bavaro. “That kid is a great, great blocker, an enthusiastic blocker. That’s what Rob was like down the stretch this year. You can’t say that about many guys.”
Gronkowski’s toughness was another of those admirable traits in Bavaro’s eyes. Although he didn’t watch the live games often, he’d see his highlights and knew how dominant No. 87 could be for New England.
“He’s a tough, tough guy, listed at 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, but probably closer to 6-7 and 270, 275,” Bavaro said. “And he’s going up against these pass oriented defenses that don’t have big guys anymore. They’re not run stoppers or big linebackers; he’s going up against (defensive backs) who are between 190 and 220 lbs; that’s a huge physical mismatch in his favor. People tried to cover him with strong safeties because they had to stay with him, but he was too fast, too strong. The guy is unbelievable.”
Because the NFL has become a pass-happy league — although Bavaro wouldn’t be surprised to see it start to come back to a run controlled style (“and look who’s already ahead of the curve there; the always innovative Bill Belichick,” he said) — defenses are built to stop opponents through the air. The tough grapplers are gone, replaced with more athletic types — and athleticism usually improves with a decrease in player size. That, said the DHS Hall of Famer, is why Gronkowski was able to feast.
Bavaro — who is recovering from recent shoulder and knee replacement surgery and hopes to be back on the golf course by June — is good friends with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who served as a defensive coordinator when he was with the Giants and later was his head coach when Bavaro spent a season with the Cleveland Browns late in his playing career. He’s well aware of what the man many consider to be the greatest coach in league history expects of his players, especially those who have exceptional talent such as Gronkowski.
“If you play for Bill, there’s a certain level of expectation that comes with that and if you don’t perform, you’re out,” he said. “Bill Parcells used to bring out the best in his players through motivation; Belichick does that to some extent as well, but he does it more by building his system around these players. You either fit into his system or you don’t, and if you do fit he’s going to maximize your talents.
“Rob would’ve been great on any team,” continued Bavaro, “but there’s no way he’d be as productive without playing in that Patriots’ system and with Tom Brady as his quarterback. This was the perfect place and system for him.”
It’s one he might eventually come back to as well, said Bavaro.
“I know he’s retired, but he’s still a football player,” he said of Gronkowski. “He’s going to heal up from his injuries; he’s going to feel better soon. He’s going to have other opportunities off the field, and those may or may not work out. He’s obviously not going to fade into the woodwork. But once he heals up, I think he could play until he’s 36 or 37. That’s a long time to sit out of football knowing you can still play the game, having everyone tell you that you can still play, and having your last memory being so dominant.
“Everyone wants to leave on their own terms, but (football) is what he’s been doing his whole life. If he was 36 or 37 now and retiring with a beat up body, I’d say God bless him. But I don’t think he’s done yet. I think he’s got more football left in him.”