NY Giants reporter Art Stapleton reflects on 2018 season.
Amy Newman, NorthJersey
Iconic New York Giants tight end Mark Bavaro has gained tremendous appreciation for Rob Gronkowski’s presence with the New England Patriots over the last nine seasons.
“Gronkowski has been the best thing for my career,” Bavaro told NorthJersey.com and USA TODAY Network New Jersey with a laugh from his Boxford, Mass., home outside of Boston.
“[Bill] Belichick brings me up, people draw comparisons, that keeps my name alive to an audience up here that has no idea who I am. They have no idea, and it’s 30 years after the fact, so that’s pretty cool.”
Gronkowski evoked memories of Bavaro in the Patriots’ victory over the Chargers last Sunday, punching their ticket to the franchise’s eighth straight AFC Championship against the Kansas City Chiefs with a spot in Super Bowl LIII on the line (Sunday, 6:40 p.m., Arrowhead Stadium).
With rumors of a potential retirement following this season, Gronkowski caught just one pass from Tom Brady for 25 yards, albeit an eye-opening reception in which he pulled a page out of Bavaro’s playbook by dragging Chargers’ defenders up the field.
His impact went well beyond that one catch, though, as the Patriots called for Gronkowski to factor more in their blocking schemes as rookie Sony Michel produced on the ground with three touchdowns and 129 yards.
“You’ve got to run the ball,” Gronkowski said after the game. “You’ve got to put your hand down and make yards the old way, the old-fashioned way, and that’s by running the ball.”
Gronkowski punished opposing linebackers and defensive backs all game long.
“I was surprised people would notice Gronkowski’s blocking on center stage like that, but it was definitely noticeable,” Bavaro said. “When the game comes around and they do call on him to block a lot, you get to see how good he is and you get to see how enjoyable it is to watch a good running game. It was a bit of old-school football, and I liked it. I liked it a lot.”
Belichick has always tried to avoid direct comparisons of Bavaro and Gronkowski, mostly due to the fact that they played in different eras of the NFL. Usually a coach of fewer words than grumbles with the media, Belichick has often gone on verbal tributes of Bavaro when asked of the Giants’ former All-Pro with whom he won two Super Bowls.
“I think Mark’s in a really special category,” Belichick said four years ago during the week leading up to Super Bowl XLIX in Arizona. “His toughness, his overall complete play as a tight end and blocker, just as a total competitor was just outstanding. I don’t think Mark has ever gotten the recognition that any of us that coached him or played with him know that he deserves.”
In previously recalling his favorite times from his Giants’ coaching tenure as defensive coordinator, Belichick has brought up the practice battles between Bavaro and Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor, and those between Bavaro and Carl Banks, as some of the best he’s ever witnessed.
“I was fortunate to go to the Giants, they had such great linebackers, and it wasn’t just Carl Banks and Lawrence Taylor,” Bavaro said. “It was Andy Headen, Byron Hunt, sometimes I had to go up against Harry Carson, Pepper Johnson, Gary Reasons, Steve DeOssie, and then of course LT and Banks. I always said, I never faced an opponent on a Sunday that was any better than I saw in practice every day.”
Then there were the in-game encounters with the late, great Reggie White.
“There were times when Reggie White would line up outside the tight end to stop our power running game,” Bavaro added. “And against those defenses, if we had an outside run called, I had to block him. Now, that being said, no one ever really blocked Reggie White. I always said that I got in his way enough to be effective.”
Bavaro, 55, admitted to losing interest in the NFL in recent seasons because of the way the current game is played with high-scoring, pass-happy offenses replacing the hard-nosed, powerful style he preferred — and embodied — in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Yet the way the divisional round played out with the Rams and Patriots going to the ground with physicality and production has somewhat piqued his curiosity again.
Gronkowski will again play a significant role Sunday, and the Chiefs have their own weapon at tight end with Travis Kelce, the most dynamic pass catcher at the position in the league.
“It’s interesting to me, because I think a team that can play good power football is going to catch a lot of the league off guard,” Bavaro said. “These defenses are not built to stop the run, so I hope we continue to see more of what Gronkowski and the Patriots and [coach Sean] McVay and the Rams did last week.
“To me, that’s the best kind of football and what the NFL is all about this time of year.”