Gronk, Hernandez are two of a kind
Patriots' versatile, record-breaking tight end duo is the ultimate mismatch
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez eyed fellow rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski for the first time in the New England Patriots' locker room after each had been drafted in 2010, he wasn't sure how to react.
"It was kind of a weird situation at first. I didn't know if we should say 'hi.' Were we competing [against each other for a job]? Do we hate each other?" Hernandez admitted.
Turns out, they had a lot in common.
"I knew of him. He was the freshman All-American tight end [from Arizona], and I wasn't," said Hernandez, who was a star at Florida.
"But we started communicating and we found out we both like to have fun and were a little bit immature," Hernandez said with a grin.
These days, when you start discussing the Patriots' potent offense, it's difficult to mention Gronkowski, a second-round draft pick, without also mentioning Hernandez, a fourth-round selection, and vice versa.
In fact, the two-headed tight end monster, which accounted for 169 receptions, the most ever for a tight-end combination in NFL history, 24 touchdowns and 2,237 receiving yards (also NFL records for tight end duos) during the regular season, has become so popular in New England, that there is a move afoot to find a suitable nickname for the pair of fun-loving, hard-working, productive players.
How about the "Boston TE Party" (tea party, get it?), which seems to be gaining traction in some social networking circles (and, of course, right here on ESPNBoston.com). Or "Shake and Quake?"
"A good one would be 'Rob and Aaron,'" Hernandez said. "I heard something about what people are doing with the names. That's kind of cool."
Gronkowski also is aware of the nickname game.
"Aaron and I will get together and come up with a name," Gronkowski said. "But it's pretty fun. I like the 'Boston TE Party.' That's pretty cool."
Gronkowski and Hernandez, meanwhile, are trying to stay cool and focused strictly on the Patriots' task at hand, a Sunday date with the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium with a berth in the Super Bowl on the line.
"We have to do what we've been doing every week, working hard and preparing for the next game," Gronkowski said on Wednesday. "We have to block everything else out and just think about the Ravens on Sunday."
While they concentrate on the Ravens' defense, Baltimore's defense certainly has to be concerned with New England's high-powered offense. And, while the Ravens' emphasis will begin with trying to confuse and foil Pats quarterback Tom Brady, Gronkowski and Hernandez clearly will demand a share of the attention.
"They use their personnel groups really well, whereas most teams, when they go [to] two tight ends, it's usually a somewhat running formation or at least a balanced formation. They can do anything," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "They can go in diesel, which is a two-tight end look, two receivers and a back, and they can spread them all out and make them look like five-wide [receivers] and can be just as efficient if it was five-wide because their guys are so athletic. It's a big predicament for us."
Gronkowski established NFL tight-end records for touchdowns (17 pass, one rush) and receiving yards (1,327) on his 90 catches. Hernandez chipped in with 79 grabs for 910 yards, including seven touchdowns.
They are different in appearance. Gronkowski is a monster at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds. Hernandez is 6-foot-1, 245 pounds. Gronkowski is sheer power with a pair of remarkably soft hands, while Hernandez is a bit more versatile, having lined up as a running back and wide receiver in addition to his tight-end duties. Hernandez started in the Pats' backfield in Saturday's playoff win against Denver, and led the team with 62 yards rushing.
And they both are effective run blockers.
That is why they forge a rather unique problem for defensive schemes that try to put the clamps on opposing tight ends, especially given the fact New England's high-scoring offense also features receivers Wes Welker, who led the NFL in receptions, and Deion Branch, with Brady pulling the quick, generally accurate trigger.
"It definitely puts a lot more pressure on opposing defenses to have weapons like that. Aaron can run the ball out of the backfield, line up at wide receiver and line up at tight end," Gronkowski said of the duo's pairing.
Hernandez was similarly complimentary about Gronkowski, who reeled in 10 passes for 145 yards and an NFL playoff record-tying three touchdowns Saturday in the playoff win against Denver.
"Rob keeps our offense moving," said Hernandez, whose locker is right next to Gronkowski's. "With him in the game the defense doesn't know if we're going to pass or run.
"And he's hard to match up against. Who can cover a guy who is 6-6 with a wing span of 7-foot-something? You get a basketball center and throw him the ball. Who's going to stop him? He's a lot more freakish [than me]. I can do some things he can't. We're hard to cover when we're together," said Hernandez, who contributed four catches for 55 yards and one TD against the Broncos.
The Patriots have noticed, not only in games, but during the week.
"We see them every day in practice. [They are] hard to cover out there, believe me," coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday.
While electing not to rank Gronkowski and Hernandez when the discussion turned to the all-time greats at the position in the NFL, Belichick did have a few good things to say about his pair of tight ends.
"Our two guys have had a good year," Belichick said. "They've been very productive for us, they've been consistent. They've been able to get the ball down the field, to run after the catch and to make critical plays in the red area and on third down.
"All those things are important in the passing game, and being able to cut off backside and block at the point of attack on the outside plays is really the heart of their run assignments. There have been a lot of them through the years, going all the way back to [Mike] Ditka and [John] Mackey, certainly more recently with [Tony] Gonzalez and [Antonio] Gates and guys like that," he added.
"Those are tough matchups defensively because of the size and the athleticism of those players. It's hard for any defense to find guys that are 250 pounds that run like these tight ends do and have the ball skills that these tight ends have," Belichick said.
Patriots defensive back Kyle Arrington and linebacker Rob Ninkovich get to see Gronkowski and Hernandez display their skills every day in practice. They sympathize with opposing defenses in their mission to slow the pair down.
"They're definitely confident," Arrington said. "They know what they have to do to be successful. Aaron is a shifty guy. You don't see many tight ends who can move the way he moves. Rob is a big guy. He has a big catch radius. He'll go anywhere to get the ball."
"Rob is that big guy who can go up and catch anything you throw at him," Ninkovich added. "With Aaron, you put a corner[back] on him and he's tough to cover because he's so quick. They're hard to prepare for. I'm happy they're on my team."
Without question, Gronkowski and Hernandez have come a long way since that first awkward meeting in the locker room. Last year, Gronkowski had 42 catches for 546 yards and 10 TDs, while Hernandez, who was bothered by a hip injury, finished with 45 grabs for 563 yards and 6 touchdowns.
"There was a lot of screaming at us and a lot of discipline [from teammates and coaches]," said Hernandez, recalling their first season with the Pats.
"We got a lot of help from our teammates on how to run routes and where we needed to be. We got a lot of discipline. Rob took [it] a little better than I did. They don't discipline us that much now. We have a little experience. There used to be a lot of screaming in our ears, but we've matured," Hernandez said.
They certainly have matured -- on the field, at least -- into the most dangerous tight-end tandem in the league, and a force to be reckoned with Sunday in the AFC title game.
Steven Krasner is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.
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