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Dan Shaughnessy

By a neck, Gronkowski clearly the best

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / December 12, 2011
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LANDOVER, Md. - Twenty-two-year-old tight end Rob Gronkowski has emerged as everybody’s favorite Patriot. Sure, that guy Brady’s OK, but Gronk is the man-child who catches everything, sheds tacklers like he’s dusting dandruff off his shoulders, and gets to the end zone more than any tight end in NFL history.

I say it’s because of his neck. You’ve never seen a guy with a neck like this. Must be tough buying shirts.

Remember Walt “No Neck’’ Williams? The Patriots have Rob “All Neck’’ Gronkowski. Watch him on those television interviews. His neck looks like somebody blew it up with a bicycle pump. Gronk’s neck is what enabled him to score a touchdown standing on his head against Kansas City - without getting hurt. His will be the most famous neck since Audrey Hepburn’s. Maybe he can do an ad for Legal Sea Foods, pushing little neck clams. Or Josh Beckett Long Necks. Wonder if Gronk knows Casablanca’s Rick Blaine, who sticks his neck out for nobody?

In the first annual “We Hate Albert Haynesworth Bowl,’’ the Patriots won another nailbiter against a bad team yesterday, beating the moribund Redskins, 34-27.

This one had some great action. The estimable Vince Wilfork scored his first career touchdown, then presented the ball to his wife, who made the trip here with about 35,000 other Patriot fans. Brady threw for 357 yards and three touchdowns, but got picked in the end zone in the fourth quarter, which led to a rare public dust-up with offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. It wasn’t Reggie Jackson vs. Billy Martin, circa 1977, but by Patriots standards it was rare. We certainly didn’t see anything like it when NFL Films spent a year inside the Patriots locker room in 2009.

We are 13 games into this Patriots season and we know so little about the local 11. They are 10-3 and every other quarterback in the conference seems to be hurt or awful, but it’s hard to have good feelings about New England’s playoff prospects. There’s no running game, the defense lacks talent and depth, and they never put together a solid 60 minutes.

The one thing we know is that they have the new All-World tight end. Gronk. His two TD receptions yesterday gives him 15 for the season, which is two more than any tight end ever caught in a season.

Think about that. The Patriots have three games to play and Gronk already has more TD catches in a season than Mike Ditka, Kellen Winslow, Dave Casper, John Mackey, Tony Gonzalez, Mark Bavaro, Shannon Sharpe, Russ Francis, or Ozzie Newsome.

“I played with Ben Coates and Gronk is better,’’ said former Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak. “He’s a freak.’’

Gronkowski is 6 feet 6 inches, 265 pounds, and ran a 4.68 40 at the combine. He’s got soft hands. He’s a great blocker. And he’s got the neck.

He made six catches for a whopping 160 yards yesterday. His best play was not a touchdown. Midway through the first quarter, Brady connected with Gronk on a short pass on the right flat. Gronkowski had to extend for the ball, then hit the deck after making the catch. But he was not down by contact. Nobody touched him after the catch, and there was no whistle, so he got up. As he started to amble, he was wrapped up by DeJon Gomes, then Reed Doughty. Both defensive backs were easily shucked. Gronk somehow managed to stay inbounds (“It happened right in front of us,’’ said Bill Belichick), broke for the end zone, and eluded one more tackler before he was brought down at the 11.

Sounding downright Gump-like, Gronkowski said, “There was no whistle or nothing, so I just kept running.’’

The play was challenged by Mike Shanahan, to no avail. Gronkowski caught an 11-yard touchdown pass on the next play.

He went into full spike mode after the TD catch, but seemed to have second thoughts as the ball hit the end zone. Happily, it landed flat, bounced straight up, and Gronkowski collected it again, then gave it to an equipment manager for safekeeping. That ball’s going into the Gronk man-cave.

“I can practice my spikes with it,’’ he said, laughing nervously.

In the third quarter, Brady found Gronk again, feathering a pass over the coverage that Gronkowski gathered, and ran with into the end zone. After his second score, Gronk vaulted over the end zone fence and plopped his big self into the lap of a Patriots fan.

“The guy’s wearing a New England jersey at an away game,’’ said Gronkowski. “I’ve got to give him some props. I’ve got to give him some love.’’

The love goes both ways. Gronkowski has a chance to be the Next Big Thing in Boston sports. He’s the Patriots’ answer to Dustin Pedroia and Brad Marchand, and he weighs more than both of them put together.

There aren’t many goofballs in Foxborough. Belichick won’t allow it. But Gronk comes close. We love the way he laughs at some of his own stuff. He oozes personality. Very un-Patriotic. He got into some trouble with the bosses when he was photographed with an adult film actress during the bye week, but it’s hard not to love his talent and enthusiasm.

Belichick says the Patriot defenders have a tough time bringing him down in practice (easy to believe based on what we’re seeing in these games). Brady says Gronkowski is a good route runner, good blocker, and a smart player.

Zolak says, “He’s a beautiful person.’’

Is Gronk getting caught up in his records and his fame?

“No,’’ he said. “That’s not how we roll around here. You’ve got to stay humble.’’

Man, this kid is fun.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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