If you just looked at the final stat line, you'd say The Great Tight End "Battle" of 2018 was pretty much a draw.
The reigning champion, Rob Gronkowski, had three catches on four targets for 97 yards in the Patriots' eventual 43-40 victory over the Chiefs on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium.
The challenger, Kansas City's Travis Kelce, had five receptions on nine targets for 61 yards.
Of course, two of Gronkowski's catches came in the final 3:50 of the game and the receptions, of 42 and 39 yards (two of New England's three longest gains in the game), help set up the Patriots' final six points, including the game-winning field goal.
Of course, if you just went by the stats, you'd miss the much larger and important point when it comes to this silly discussion: if you paid attention to the way the Patriots used Gronkowski in this game, it was basically Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick giving the middle finger to anyone who dared to compare Kelce to Gronkowski.
Yeah, they're looking at you, Booger McFarland and turncoat Rodney Harrison. Oh, especially you, Kelce.
"Gronk is a hell of a player, but like I said, I feel like I’m the best tight end in the league,” Kelce said on The Dan Patrick Show last year.
Looking at the way the Patriots used Gronkowski in this game, you could almost hear Belichick snorting as he looked over all the quotes about Kelce and Gronkowski and then yelling down the hall to McDaniels to say, "Hey Josh, shut all these people up."
Because what you saw on Sunday night was a clinic in what it means to be a complete tight end in the NFL. See, in order to be considered an NFL tight end, one needs to block and block well — or at least well enough for his own team to actually use him as a blocker. If not, that "tight end" is actually a receiver.
There was one tight end on the field at Gillette. The other guy had a dating show.
[caption id="attachment_458626" align="aligncenter" width="800"] (Adam Richins for BSJ)[/caption]
In many ways, this game reminded me of Gronkowski's game against the Raiders in 2011. It was his coming out party as a complete tight end in just his second season, despite the fact that he had just one catch for 15 yards. Basically, Gronkowski was the key component of a Patriots ground game that had 185 yards on 28 carries (6.1 yards per carry) in a 31-19 win in Oakland. What I wrote at the time still holds — just swap in Kelce's name:
There are plenty of young, trendy tight ends in the NFL. Jermichael Finley of the Packers and Jimmy Graham of the Saints come to mind. But not many can hold a candle to Gronkowski in blocking, which makes him one of the more complete tight ends in the game.
He’s soon to get Pro Bowl and All-Pro consideration, and a day like Sunday against the Raiders, when he caught just one ball but did so much more, is a prime example of why.
Seven years later, Gronkowski might not be the same blocker, but his lead over most in the league – especially Kelce — in that category means no one should insult him by putting others on his level.
Just look at the numbers and who he was asked to block.
Against the Chiefs, Gronkowski was asked to block on 63.5 percent of his total snaps — including 30.8 percent of Tom Brady's 39 pass attempts.
And he wasn't just some show pony on the backside of the runs, or someone who was asked to take care of a much-smaller defensive back. Gronkowski was heavily involved in run blocking on 15 of 35 attempts (42.9 percent). That's an amazing number that you'd be hard-pressed to see matched against anyone other than a blocking-only tight end.
Included in that total were five plays where Gronkowski pulled and/or was the lead blocker, including this big run by Sony Michel.
And this Michel touchdown, where Gronkowski (and Shaq Mason) made the key blocks to allow the rookie back to basically break the plane of the goal line untouched.
And just for good measure — and possibly so Kelce could get a dose of humble pie when he sees this film — the Patriots showed Gronkowski off by having him kick slide against an edge rusher like he was a sixth offensive lineman and an extra offensive tackle.
On that play, Gronkowski was asked to block outside linebacker Breeland Speaks (who was subbing for the injured Justin Houston). That Gronkowski was asked to block that important of a player wasn't just an outlier against the Chiefs — it was the rule. Gronkowski only blocked edge rushers, defensive linemen and inside linebackers in the game (For the record, I'm missing one of Gronkowski's snaps unless the gamebook is wrong. I have him for 74 snaps, plus two plays I didn't count (kneel downs). Officially he played 77 snaps).
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Now, this isn't to say Gronkowski was perfect as a blocker — he wasn't. I had him for two minus run blocks, and one hurry allowed. But that's still a success rate of 93.6 percent. I would gather that's a pretty good score.
As for the Other 87, Kelce was asked to run block four times and two of them were not good (50 percent) and Kelce's assignment made the tackle, including this one:
In a quick viewing of Kelce's snaps, I saw four additional blocks and four were of the finesse variety (chip, fan, screen, decoy). There was only one real pass block, and Kyle Van Noy likely didn't attack because he was assigned to cover Kelce should he leak out for a pass.
It's long been said that you can tell everything you need to know about a player's strengths and weaknesses based on how his coaches — who know the player best — utilize him.
Kelce was asked to block on nine of the Chiefs' 53 plays (17 percent), and four of their 17 running plays (23.5 percent). He also wasn't targeted in the fourth quarter.
Gronkowski was asked to block on 63.5 percent of his total snaps, and 74.5 percent of the Patriots' running plays. And he caught both of his targets for 81 yards at the most important juncture of the game.
"Yeah, Rob gave us a lot of big plays blocking and receiving," Belichick deadpanned after the game.
I think we can put all this silly talk about whether Gronkowski or Kelce is the best tight end in the game to bed after Sunday night.
Belichick and McDaniels basically rubbed everyone's noses in it, and left no doubt.