MIAMI (CBS SF) — For nearly a decade no player epitomized the tight end position more than retired New England Patriots star Rob Gronkowski.
So when pre-game talk turned to the two tight ends playing in this year’s Super Bowl — Kansas City’s Travis Kelce and San Francisco’s George Kittle — there was suddenly a sparkle in his eye.
“They are fantastic players,” Gronkowski told KPIX 5. “It just shows how special that tight end position is now. You got the No.1 and No. 2 players — you can swap them, you know depending on the week of who is No. 1 and who is No. 2.”
Kittle and Kelce are on the pinnacle the evolutionary upswing at the position in the NFL. Sure there have been other greats over the years — John Mackey, Charlie Sanders, Raymond Chester, Kellen Winslow, Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez and Gronk. But they often toiled away from the limelight.
In Super Bowl LIV the position is front and center with both Kittle and Kelce expected to deliver pivotal performances for their respective teams.
“It’s a blessing to see tight ends now getting the recognization that they deserve,” said Gronkowski, who has lost 20-plus pounds since he retired at the end of the 2018 season. “To see that the two best tight ends right now in the league are in the Super Bowl. It just shows how special the tight end is becoming from back in the day and how these players are transcending the game.”
“Kittle and Kelc just keep showing up every week and doing a great job.”
Gronkowski said both players are very capable of making a play that will flip the game in the favor of their respective team.
“Kelc can make a big play down the field for 40-50 yards,” he said. “You’ve seen Kittle make big plays — he flipped the game versus New Orleans on 4-and-2 just on a slant route. Takes slant route brings it right into field goal position to win the game. It just show what tight ends are becoming.”
What Gronkowski was referring to with Kittle is one of the iconic plays of the 49ers remarkable turn-around season.
With the game against the Saints hanging in the balance on 4th-and-2 with the clock ticking down, the 49ers were on their own 33-yard-line. It appeared they were destined for their third close loss of the season in the 46-45 contest against the 10-2 Saints.
Then the team turned to Kittle and his never say die attitude.
“It was a ‘choice’ route,” Kittle explained of the pivotal play. “It was man (coverage), he (the Saints defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson) was sitting inside, I get a choice of going in or out. Emmanuel (Sanders) and KB (Kendrick Bourne) basically have ‘Go’ routes to clear it out for me. He (Gardner-Johnson) was sitting hard inside so it was pretty easy decision for me. Break out and Jimmy (Garoppolo) gave me a good ball and let me run with it.”
“Run with it” is an understatement.
What Kittle did after the catch elevated the play into 49er lore. He shook free from Gardner-Johnson and raced up the sideline. New Orleans safety Marcus Williams attempted to stop him, holding onto his face mask as Kittle carried him down the sideline. It was a mano-a-mano fight, neither player refusing to yield.
For nearly 15 yards, Kittle battled with Williams, who continued to yank on his mask. Finally two other Saints joined in to bring Kittle to the turf. The play covered 39 yards plus an additional 15-yard facemask penalty and set up Robbie Gould’s game-winning field goal as time ran out.
“22 (Gardner-Johnson) did a great job on me all day,” Kittle said. “It was really fun to go against him. We had some good battles. I got him at the end though.”