O’Sullivan: Gronkowski offers Patriots unique weapon with personality to match in Super Bowl spotlight

  • New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) gestures after making a catch against the Buffalo Bills during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus) Adrian Kraus

  • New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) celebrates his touchdown in the first half of an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans, Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Butch Dill) Butch Dill

  • New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski yells to the crowd during a rally Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, in Boston to celebrate Sunday's 34-28 win over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFL Super Bowl 51 football game in Houston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) Elise Amendola

  • FILE - In this Dec. 21, 2014 file photo, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) spikes the football after scoring a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the New York Jets, in East Rutherford, N.J. Gronkowski was a unanimous selected to the 2014 Associated Press NFL All-Pro team announced Friday, Jan 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)After an injury-plagued 2013, Rob Gronkowski flourished in full health during the 2014 regular season. Julio Cortez

  • New England’s Rob Gronkowski has a big personality to match his skill set. AP

  • New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski holds up Vince Lombardi Trophy after the Patriots defeated the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 in NFL Super Bowl XLIX football game Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey) Mark Humphrey

  • New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski celebrates his first touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski celebrates his first touchdown against the Steelers in the first half of Thursday’s game in Foxborough, Mass. ap — Winslow Townson Winslow Townson

  • New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski (87) reacts as he scored a touchdown in front of New York Giants' Jayron Hosley (28) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday Nov. 15, 2015, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)Rob Gronkowski cruises into the end zone with the longest TD reception of his career. Julio Cortez

Monitor staff
Sunday, February 04, 2018

The game feels custom-tailored for him – larger-than-life and loaded with hype.

“He’s an incredible guy. I just love my experience playing with him,” Tom Brady said. “He has a spirit about him that’s unmatched that no one can really duplicate. It’s very authentic who he is.”

Who is he? Rob Gronkowski, of course, and Sunday’s Super Bowl LII between New England and Philadelphia might turn into his playground.

The Patriots don’t need a big game from big Gronk to win. They staged the greatest Super Bowl comeback of all-time last year without the 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end, who missed more than half of last season with a bad back. The Pats were actually 10-0 last year without Gronkowski, but they know they’re a much more dangerous – not to mention fun-loving, fiesta-inspiring and fear-inducing – team with Gronk on the field.

“He means a ton to our offense. He really has since he got to our team. It’s always great when he’s out there,” Brady said. “I’ve played with him a long time, I’ve thrown him a lot of footballs. He knows exactly what to do, he knows where to expect the ball, when to expect it. He’s just a tremendous player for our team.”

Gronkowski led the Patriots in receptions (69 … go ahead and give a Gronk chuckle for that number), receiving yards (1,084) and touchdown catches (eight) during the regular season. He had six catches for 81 yards and a touchdown in the 35-14 playoff win against Tennessee, but he had to leave the AFC Championship game in the first half with a concussion.

There was some concern Gronkowski might have to miss a second straight Super Bowl, but he went through the NFL’s concussion protocol and was cleared to play, and talk to the media, on Thursday. That’s great news for New England fans, even if we didn’t get to bask in two full weeks of Gronkapalooza hype before the big game. Although that may have been the plan for the mediaphobic Bill Belichick.

“They might have had a plan to keep me off the media for a bit, so maybe they held me out for an extra day or two, I’m not sure,” Gronkowski said when he was finally cleared to perform in front of microphones. “I don’t know. Maybe you (media members) can get me going so I can get going.”

Getting Gronk going at the podium – or on a dance floor, cruise ship or Dunkin’ Donuts commercial – is a good time, but let’s not get distracted here. What really matters is if he gets going on Sunday against the Eagles, and there’s reason to believe Gronk can spike through this vaunted Philadelphia defense.

Let’s be clear – the Eagles D is nasty. They’ve given up just 17 points in two playoff games, and seven of those came after a fumbled punt led to an 18-yard touchdown drive for Atlanta in Philadelphia’s 15-10 playoff win against the Flacons. They have the No. 1 run defense. They put tons of pressure on the quarterback. They’re deep, versatile and well-coached.

But they also have weaknesses, and one of those is covering tight ends.

Kansas City’s star tight end Travis Kelce torched the Eagles for eight catches and 103 yards during the Chiefs’ 27-20 win on Sept. 17, one of Philadelphia’s three losses this year. Washington’s Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis, combined for 12 catches for 131 yards against the Eagles on Oct. 23. Seattle’s Nick Vannett and Jimmy Graham combined for six catches for 66 yards and a touchdown when the Seahawks beat Philly, 24-10, on Dec. 3. And the only points the Eagles gave up in their 38-7 NFC Championship win against Minnesota was on a 25-yard touchdown catch by Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph.

Kelce, Reed, Rudolph and Graham are some of the best tight ends in the NFL whose names don’t end in -ski. But there’s no question Gronkowski is bigger threat than any of them, just ask Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz, a tremendous tight end in his own right.

“He’s a beast after the catch, I think that kind of separates him from all the other tight ends,” Ertz said. “And he’s also able to be open even when he’s not open because he’s got such a big frame and extremely good ball skills. And obviously Tom Brady is a phenomenal quarterback, too, but even without Tom, I think he would still be doing the same type of things regardless of where he was.”

Describing Gronk as a “beast after the catch” is pretty good. But there were some better descriptions coming out of the Pro Bowl last week.

“He’s like a big rhinoceros running down the field,” Baltimore safety Eric Weddle told Pete Prisco of cbssports.com.

“It feels like hitting a brick,” Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward told Prisco.

Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will undoubtedly have multiple coverages prepared for the brick, rhinoceros and beast, including some that involve old friend Corey Graham, the Eagles safety and former University of New Hampshire cornerback who is now in his 11th year in the league. But no matter how much football Graham has played or how many schemes Schwartz devises, they still know Gronkowski will be an issue.

“What makes Gronk so different … is he’s so tall, he’s so big, he’s so strong that he has the ability to create some space even if there’s no real room as far as coverage goes,” said Schwartz. “They move him around so much that it makes it hard to (double team him).”

There’s no question Gronkowki will be a problem for the Eagles, just like there’s no question the Super Bowl is more super with a full dose of Gronk.

“Every time I get a chance to play in the Super Bowl,” Gronkowski said, “you have to cherish the moment to the max, no matter what.”

You got it, Gronk. Let the cherishing begin.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341, tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @tosullivan20.)