Against the Denver Broncos in Week 9, Rob Gronkowski became the fastest tight end to reach 50 touchdowns. And he added another a week later in what was his 60th regular-season game. Yet if he can add another Week 14 against the San Diego Chargers, it would be different.
The tight end he eclipsed in the record books would be watching.
One is 25, the other is 34. One stands in at 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, the other at 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds. One was a second-round pick, the other was undrafted. But while the differences between Gronkowski and Antonio Gates are apparent, both have revolutionized the position in which they play.
Only Gates did so for seven seasons before Gronkowski entered the league.
“He’??s an unbelievable player,” Gronkowski told the media at practice on Thursday. “Ever since high school I’??ve looked up to him. I love the way he runs routes and how he gets open and how he makes it stick at the top of the routes to get open. I’??ve always watched him ever since growing up, and I still watch him to do this day to learn from him.”
Now 12 seasons into his Chargers career, Gates has, in a sense, paved the trail Gronkowski has followed.
His 96 touchdowns have made the trail a long one.
“Whenever you see a tight end of that caliber playing every single week – what is this, his 12th year – and going out there every week and making a huge impact and making huge plays and looking like he’??s in his early-20s still, it’??s unbelievable,” Gronkowski said.
Once a Kent State basketball player, Gates has since logged 175 games as a San Diego football player. He’s caught 766 passes for 9,767 yards over that span. And he’s harnessed two 1,000-yard campaigns and three 10-plus touchdown campaigns along the way.
Eight Pro Bowls, five All-Pro nods and a spot on the 2000s All-Decade team have been the byproduct from him.
So has longevity.
“Obviously he knows what he’??s doing. He’??s a player to look up to, no doubt about that,” Gronkowski added. “It’??ll be cool to talk to him and learn what he’??s done the whole time to keep playing and keep playing at that high level. He’??s a great player and I definitely look up to him.”
The bar Gates has set is a high one. But it is one that Gronkowski is on the way to achieving. Over his 62 regular-season contests, No. 87 has reeled in 291 passes for 4,165 yards. He’s strung together one 1,000-yard season and three straight seasons of over 10 touchdowns, including 17 in 2013.
He’s netted two Pro Bowls as well as two All-Pro nods in the process.
Even so, there’s something to be said for how long Gates has been able to do what he’s done; how long he’s been able to dictate coverage just by his alignment before the snap.
“He’s a tough matchup. He’s very crafty,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said on Tuesday. “He’s got great patience and sets up his routes very well.”
The Detroit, Mich., native has set up his routes to the tune of 47 receptions for 574 yards and nine scores in 2014. And although his traits may not be as visible as they once were they are still there; they are still leaving their mark down the field and underneath.
“He’s a big target, rare hands; obviously a lot of chemistry with him and [Philip] Rivers and timing and so forth,” Belichick said. “Yes, he’s a very hard guy to match up on and they go to him a lot, as they should, if the matchups are favorable.”
The matchups Gates and Gronkowski are able to create is part of what links them. But what the two do with those matchups is where they differ.
“When you watch his style versus Rob’s style, they’re a little different,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said before practice at the University of San Diego this week. “Rob has had a couple tough injuries, but he’s a tough guy. He plays the game just how he knows how to play it. He tries to run people over.”
Gronkowski has continued to run people over, despite missing 14 regular-season games between 2012 and 2013. And while it remains to be seen where he will be in 2021, perhaps he can be the same player Gates is now.
Just in a different way.