When Rob Gronkowski of the Buccaneers was a kid, no one wanted to play tight end. They were overshadowed, he said, by quarterbacks, wide receivers and running backs.
Eventually, Gronkowski made it cool, contrasting his bone-crushing style on the field with a meathead joy off it.
“I feel like the tight end position is on the map now,” Gronkowski said this week. “It’s a position that I feel like kids want to play. People want to grow up to be a tight end, which is pretty awesome.”
When Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce switched from quarterback in college, he watched tape of Gronkowski.
“He was the staple,” Kelce said. “His dominance fueled me to have that much impact in the game.”
Now young players study Kelce, who had 1,416 receiving yards this season, the most ever for a tight end.
While the last half-decade of Super Bowls has showcased the league’s tight end revolution, Sunday’s will reach new heights, showcasing perhaps the best tight end ever against the player most likely to take the title away from him.
It’s not hyperbolic to say that Kelce and Gronkowski have inspired two generations of tight ends, and counting.
Soon — if little boys keep growing up wanting to play tight end — every team will have a playmaking, absurdly athletic pass-catching tight end. It’s already becoming a prerequisite for any dominant offense.
The question for the Bears is, do they have theirs?
Cole Kmet had a slow start to his NFL career. Despite almost constant public praise from coach Matt Nagy, the rookie from Notre Dame had only eight catches through the Bears’ first 11 regular-season games. Only six tight ends had more catches than his 20 over the last five games, though, and only seven had more than his 30 targets.
“You look at the teams that have been to the Super Bowls in these past years, and you see the guys that these teams have at the tight end position,” Kmet, a St. Viator alum, said Tuesday. “It’s crucial, being able to have a guy that can be in-line and be an extra blocker and also go out and beat up DBs and safeties and linebackers when they’re in coverage. I think that’s definitely something that’s important to have on a team.”
Kmet was prolific but not dynamic. His 4.97 yards per target over the last five games ranked 71st out of 94 NFL tight ends who had a pass thrown their way during that span.
“I definitely see my game going to that (higher level),” he said. “That’s something that I want for myself. I know the Bears obviously want to see that, as well. I look forward to really this whole offseason, getting better and being able to come back for camp this next year and hit the ground running.”
Asked what he’d want in a quarterback next season, Kmet said the Bears’ front office and coaching staff will “look for the guy that they want to fit in their system,” and he listed athleticism and leadership as coveted traits.
Kmet’s emergence as a standout tight end would help that quarterback immensely, whoever he may be.
“Every quarterback needs that go-to guy,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “And so if you’re lucky enough to have a tight end as your go-to guy, it’s a good thing. To work between the hashes and in the numbers, the middle of the field, that area, there’s nothing like it for a quarterback.”
Recent history says the Bears won’t make the Super Bowl unless they find their star tight end. In the last six Super Bowls, eight players have served as their team’s top tight end option. Six of them totaled 21 Pro Bowl appearances:
† Gronkowski has reached the Super Bowl four times in the last six years — and was ineligible last season because he had retired — and is a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
† Kelce, who has gone to the title game the last two years, has been to six Pro Bowls, one more than Gronkowski.
† The 49ers’ George Kittle, a two-time Pro Bowl player, held the tight end receiving yards record — 1,377 in 2018 — until Kelce broke it this season.
† The Eagles’ Zach Ertz has three Pro Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl ring.
† Greg Olsen, the former Bear who retired last month, made three Pro Bowls and played in the Super Bowl with the Panthers.
† Austin Hooper, who reached two Pro Bowls and played in the Super Bowl with the Falcons, signed a contract with the Browns last year that, at the time, featured the highest annual salary for a multiyear deal for a tight end. Kittle broke the record months later.
“It’s the closest receiver to the quarterback normally on most downs,” Reid said. “(Kelce and Gronkowski) are big guys, so normally you get a size matchup, which is great for the quarterback. Big catch radius for both guys. Both guys can get open. They know how to get open. They’ve produced in heightened coverage situations and within zones.”
Asked about how the tight end position has evolved in the last decade, Gronkowski listed off a who’s who of modern pass catchers: Jeremy Shockey, Antonio Gates, Jason Witten, then Kittle and Kelce.
The next great one lurks, somewhere.
“I feel like 20 years ago, it wasn’t cool to play tight end,” Gronkowski said. “But now it’s like, ‘Man, I can be a tight end in the league.’ That’s how it should be.”