Patriots

Coordinator to competitor: Bill O'Brien looks back fondly on Rob Gronkowski's 'unbelievable' career

Coordinator to competitor: Bill O'Brien looks back fondly on Rob Gronkowski's 'unbelievable' career

PHOENIX -- Bill O'Brien remembered it clearly. How could he forget?

The Patriots welcomed University of Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski to their facilities at Gillette Stadium for a visit ahead of the 2010 draft. The 20-year-old showed up wearing a button-down shirt and tie, and he had a blazer hanging from his 6-foot-6 frame. 

Standard interview attire, maybe. But Gronkowski wasn't about to endure a standard interview. The Patriots wanted to see how heavy his hands were. They wanted to see the width of his shoulders. They wanted to see what he'd absorb when it came to blocking techniques.

"By the time we were done, buttons were undone, his hair was all over the place," O'Brien said. "He goes, 'I've never done anything like that before!' "

The Texans head coach has a unique perspective on Gronkowski's career, which he shared from the league's annual meeting at the Arizona Biltmore about 24 hours after Gronkowski announced his retirement on Instagram. 

O'Brien was the Patriots quarterbacks coach during Gronkowski's rookie year and then his offensive coordinator when Gronkowski set the single-season record for touchdowns by a tight end (18) in 2011. For the last five years O'Brien has competed against Gronkowski, working to cook up schemes to slow down one of the focal points of what is annually one of the best offenses in the AFC.

When I caught up with O'Brien on Monday, he didn't react to the news of Gronkowski's retirement quite like Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. ("Awesome!") Instead, while happy for Gronkowski, O'Brien expressed some dismay that this totally unique talent -- one that went off for seven catches, 123 yards and a touchdown in a Week 1 win over O'Brien's Texans -- won't be playing any longer.

"I've had him, [DeAndre] Hopkins and [Randy] Moss," O'Brien said. "I'd put his hands right up there with any of them. He could bend over, catch it off the ground. His hands were tremendous."

O'Brien added: "I know he's been banged up. But the game is going to miss him."

MORE ON GRONK'S RETIREMENT 

Bill Belichick was enamored with Gronkowski and really wanted to draft him nine years ago, O'Brien recalled. Soon thereafter, Gronkowski made it very clear that he would leave his imprint on the league, dominating in rookie minicamp alongside fellow first-year tight end Aaron Hernandez. With that pair in the fold, it was O'Brien who coordinated the two-tight end sets that became en vogue in Gronkowski's record-breaking second year.

"People maybe that didn't know him thought he was a big partier," O'Brien said. "But this guy put nothing but good food into his body. He drank a gallon of water a day. He was banged up, I know, but he took really good care of his body . . . 

"And he was tough. He brought a lot of toughness to our team. The guy was a tough [dude]."

It wasn't just the coaching staff that saw Gronkowski's greatness early. Tom Brady, O'Brien said, saw it during Gronkowski's first year. The veteran quarterback was hard on his new tight end because he knew what he had in Gronkowski was rare.

"Brady worked this guy to the bone," O'Brien said. "I'm talking 20 routes every day after practice . . . [Brady] knew he was going to be unbelievable."

O'Brien made sure to point out that for all the game-breaking talent Gronkowski possessed, the energy he brought to the locker room -- shoulder-bumping teammates randomly throughout the day, laughing constantly -- was part of what made him special. He did his work, but he was always himself, and his demeanor rubbed off on others inside a building that has a reputation for being a stressful place to work.

The game might miss Gronkowski, as O'Brien indicated. The Patriots certainly will.

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Dolphins player: Referee told me to 'stay off' Patriots QB Tom Brady after legal hit

Dolphins player: Referee told me to 'stay off' Patriots QB Tom Brady after legal hit

The NFL has been accused of doing too much to protect quarterbacks over the last decade or so, and Miami Dolphins linebacker Raekwon McMillan's latest comments won't do much to put an end to that view point.

McMillan told reporters Wednesday that the referee in Sunday's Week 2 matchup between the Dolphins and New England Patriots at Hard Rock Stadium told the Miami linebacker to "stay off" quarterback Tom Brady after a legal hit. Referee Bill Vinovich and his crew officiated the game.

It's impossible to know this official's rationale without hearing his side of the story. Maybe he felt that while McMillan's hit was legal, it was close to roughing the passer and he wanted to help the Dolphins linebacker avoid a 15-yard penalty later in the game. Or, it's possible, he didn't want the game to get out of hand given the lopsided scoreline throughout the afternoon. The Patriots ultimately won 43-0.

In fairness to the NFL, the rule changes it has made in recent years to protect quarterbacks were smart decisions. Quarterback is the most important position in the sport, both in terms of on-field performance and success from a business perspective. These players are the league's most marketable stars. In fact, a recent poll of league executives and other experts concluded that six of the 10 most marketable players in football were quarterbacks, led by Brady and Kansas City Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes (in that order).

Brady was on the injury report Wednesday with a calf injury, but it's not known if it happened on McMillan's hit.

McMillan's frustration is understandable, but we shouldn't be surprised that referees in 2019 are looking out for the safety of quarterbacks. And we should expect more caution going forward given the recent injuries to Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

Aaron Rodgers has great reaction to Tom Brady's critics>>>

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Aaron Rodgers has great response to critics of Patriots QB Tom Brady

Aaron Rodgers has great response to critics of Patriots QB Tom Brady

Some of the criticism thrown at New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is just silly.

The most famous hot take on Brady's alleged decline came in the summer of 2016 when Max Kellerman said on ESPN's "First Take" that Brady would soon "fall off a cliff." Well, in the three years since Kellerman's bold remark, Brady has won two more Super Bowl titles (in three appearances) and an MVP award. 

Sometimes, you just have to laugh at these critics.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers admitted to doing that during his appearance Tuesday on ESPN Radio's "The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz." Here's the exchange:

Question: Do you look at Brady the way we all do? Like, what the hell? He's 42, what the hell, Aaron.

Rodgers: "I do. I think I laugh with him a little bit when they replay some of the remarks, especially after that Chiefs game I think a lot of us remember from (2014) when the Chiefs kind of blew them out on a Sunday or Monday night and everyone was (saying), 'This is it. Brady's done. The Pats are done.' You look at what they've done since then. That's the beauty at times in this sport and playing, for him, at obviously such a high level. Sometimes you're looking around and you're like, 'Man, maybe I need some inspiration this week,' and having something like that to go back to whenever you want. People are just waiting for him to like regress, and it's like, it's not happening. Not happening. But the first time he has a game he doesn't throw three (touchdowns), it's gonna be like, 'Here it is. Here's the beginning.' And sure enough, there's a little more ammo for him to be like, 'What you say? Oh yeah? OK, cool. I'm going back to the Super Bowl.'" 

Rodgers has faced his own share of criticism over the last few years as the Packers have struggled to find playoff success, so he has a bit of an understanding of what Brady has dealt with over the last decade or so.

Brady and Rodgers went head-to-head last season for just the second time, and the Patriots prevailed in a 31-17 win at Gillette Stadium. It's possible that meeting was the last one before Brady retires, unless of course they square off in the Super Bowl.

And, judging by the way the Patriots and Packers have played through two games this season, a Brady-Rodgers showdown in Super Bowl LIV certainly is a possibility.

Only one player ahead of Tom Brady in latest MVP betting odds>>>

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