Commentary

Rob Gronkowski gains fans by scores

Patriots tight end with nose for the end zone finds new way to reach pay dirt

Updated: December 4, 2011, 9:52 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In the days leading up to Sunday's game against the winless Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was emphatic that records don't mean a thing.

Well, not win-loss records, anyway. If you believe Belichick, New England truly doesn't care if an opponent is 11-0 or 0-11. And the Colts proved his point in the fourth quarter Sunday at Gillette Stadium, making things closer than they should have been before the Patriots emerged with a 31-24 triumph.

But Belichick sure seemed cognizant of the touchdown record that Rob Gronkowski has been approaching. The second-year tight end entered the game with 11 receiving touchdowns and needed three to break the NFL mark at his position.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesPatriots tight end Rob Gronkowski scores his third touchdown of the game, his 14th of the season and the first of his career on the ground.

After Gronkowski caught a pair of touchdowns Sunday, Belichick and the Patriots seemed to dial up a little swing pass near the goal line aimed at propelling Gronkowski into sole possession of the league mark.

But geometry ruined the occasion. Quarterback Tom Brady's pass was ruled to have traveled laterally and was ultimately changed to a 2-yard rushing touchdown for Gronkowski. For at least one week, he'll have to settle for being tied with San Francisco's Vernon Davis (2009) and San Diego's Antonio Gates (2004) with 13 receiving touchdowns.

Gronkowski can take solace in the fact that 14 touchdowns overall are an NFL record for his position. And, to his credit, after being informed of the scoring change following Sunday's game, Gronkowski simply reverted to the mantra of the week.

"Records aren't really important," he said. "The thing that's most important, any week, is getting the victory, which we did."

True, and the Patriots can thank Gronkowski for that. With an uncanny knack for finding room around the end zone, he reeled in scoring passes of 11 and 21 yards as part of a four-touchdown explosion in the middle quarters that gave New England a 28-point cushion.

Still, it's clear the touchdown record is important to both Gronkowski and his coach. After his third score, instead of delivering one of his trademark "boom!" spikes (Belichick jokes he's "drilling for oil"), Gronkowski held tight to the ball and threw it to the sideline for safekeeping.

After the PAT attempt, Belichick sought out Gronkowski on the sideline and seemed to congratulate him on the accomplishment. Gronkowski later would joke that he should have spiked the ball, but he still found reason to hold on to the keepsake.

"That was the first rush of my career -- of my whole life -- and I got a touchdown on it," Gronkowski said. "My first rushing touchdown ever, I'm cool."

Gronkowski is the first tight end to score a rushing touchdown since Tennessee's Bo Scaife had a 31-yard scoring run against Baltimore on Nov. 12, 2006. He's also the first tight end in Patriots history to score a rushing TD.

One can envision Gronkowski lobbying Belichick for more carries this week in practice, pushing rookies such as Stevan Ridley out of the huddle so he can line up in the backfield. Gronkowski can make the case that no defense has ever kept him out of the end zone when he's touched the ball on the ground.

After all, this is a magical season for Gronkowski.

With the three touchdowns Sunday, he has produced multiple scores in three of the past four games and in five games on the season, and has nine touchdowns in his past five games. He's practically started his own Occupy End Zone initiative.

Don't take our word for it. Ninth-year Colts veteran Dallas Clark -- one of the league's elite receiving tight ends -- never has caught more than 11 touchdowns in a season (he has 46 for his career). A fibula injury kept Clark out of Sunday's game, but even he's taken notice of Gronkowski's accomplishments.

"He's had a tremendous year. He's one of those components in the big scheme of things in the offense who is just making plays for his team," Clark said. "When he has those opportunities, he's making the most of it. He's done a great job of making plays."

Clark didn't skimp on the praise while discussing both Gronkowski (five catches, 64 yards) and fellow second-year tight end Aaron Hernandez (seven catches, 43 yards).

"[Gronkowski is] big. He's tall, with really good hands. I think he's getting more and more comfortable finding the seam routes, finding the holes, finding the area," he said. "Obviously, him and Tom are on a good page together.

"I think Tom understands what he has with him and Hernandez, and when you have two tight ends like that, it really puts defenses in a bind. I really think they're doing a great job of not forcing things and taking what the defense is giving them."

Belichick said at his postgame news conference that he was unaware of the scoring change on Gronkowski's final touchdown. Asked if he had been aware of the approaching milestone, Belichick played coy while noting, "I was really trying to be concerned about beating the Colts. I wasn't really concerned about individual stats. I think I've said that many, many times. This game isn't about individual stats, it's about team wins."

Yes, but no one is more of a historian of the game than Belichick, and he never said he wasn't aware of the record. It clearly means a lot to him and Gronkowski to accomplish the feat.

And it's not as though the Patriots need to force the issue. The mark has come within the natural flow of the offense all season. When asked how Gronkowski had such success Sunday, Belichick said, "He wasn't covered, so Tom threw it to him."

Yup, it's been that simple. And Gronkowski will soon have the record to prove it.

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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