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Calvin Johnson Making Hall Of Fame On First Ballot Should End Any Rob Gronkowski Debate

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- On Saturday night, the Pro Football Hall of Fame officially announced its 2021 inductees. Among them was former Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who earned enshrinement in his first year as an eligible candidate on the ballot.

On the surface, this news has absolutely nothing to do with Rob Gronkowski. Yet ... it absolutely does.

You see, back before Super Bowl LIII, when rumors swirled that the hulking tight end may retire from football, the Boston Herald's Karen Guregian interviewed some Hall of Fame voters. Many of them weren't convinced that Gronkowski would earn enshrinement in his first year on the ballot, due to his relatively short career. Compared to, say, Jason Witten or Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez, Gronkowski didn't have the typical Hall of Fame career length.

Interestingly, one Hall of Fame voter compared Gronkowski's career directly to Calvin Johnson's.

"I would almost compare him to Calvin Johnson, who played eight or nine years. He's way down the list in terms of career stats. But gosh, when he played, he was elite," Mike Chappell said in that article. "If someone said first ballot, I'd say let's pump the brakes. But then when you look at the body of work when he played at the position, you want difference makers. ... I'm thinking it'll come down to the Calvin Johnson argument. He was good enough, but did he play long enough, and if he did play long enough, how long will he have to wait, and how soon will he get in? But I'd pump the brakes on first ballot. To me, there's always a ton of boxes you have to check for first ballot. And one is longevity."

Ron Borges said in that article that Gronkowski simply was not a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

"He's only played in 115 games. That's number one. Number two, in terms of career receptions and career yards, there's over 100 players in both categories who have been more productive," Borges told Guregian. "Do I think he's a first ballot Hall of Famer? No, not at the moment. If he continues playing, and puts up some more numbers, then maybe he becomes one. Do I think he's a Hall of Famer? He's got a very strong case."

Borges added, for emphasis: "I would think eventually he'd get in the Hall of Fame. Is it automatic? No. Is it a slam dunk? No. Is it first ballot? I don't really think so."

At the time, the Calvin Johnson debate was not settled. Now, it is. Despite playing just nine seasons and despite ranking 32nd in all-time receiving yards and tied for 23rd in touchdowns, Johnson is a Hall of Famer. He made it on the first ballot. There was no doubt.

When Gronkowski eventually retires (for good), he should be afforded the same path.

The 31-year-old Gronkowski did add to his career stat totals this season, after taking a sabbatical from the NFL in 2019. He caught 45 passes for 623 yards while hauling in seven touchdowns. None of those touchdowns came in the first month of the season, and he seemed to have gotten a bit more potent as the year went on. So it's possible that he adds even more stats to the totals next year.

Gronkowski's also on the verge of winning his third Super Bowl, and there's no tight end in the history of the sport with a postseason resume that even comes close to Gronkowski's. Without even really adding much in three postseason games this season (2 receptions, 43 yards), Gronkowski's playoff stats are silly: 83 receptions, 1,206 yards, 12 TDs in 19 games.

He ranks sixth all time in playoff receiving yards, and first among tight ends. (Travis Kelce ranks second among tight ends, with 347 fewer yards.) And he is tied for second on the all-time list of playoff receiving touchdowns, behind only Jerry Rice.

Flip on the tape, and Gronkowski's brute strength as a blocker is impossible to miss, too, as he has been the most dominant all-around tight end of the modern era. There have been smoother receivers, and there have been players who lasted longer, but there's never been a player as dominant at the position in all facets than Rob Gronkowski.

That much was clear when his Patriots career ended, and anything he adds to that body of work in Tampa is, frankly, gravy. The guy is a no-doubt-about-it Hall of Famer, and even without a comparable candidate like Calvin Johnson, there should have been no way to deny that reality.

Now, though, there is a direct comparison. Johnson made it into the Hall of Fame on his first ballot because when he played, he was arguably the best in the world at his position for a solid eight seasons. He only played in two playoff games, because the Lions are as sad a franchise as there is in professional sports, and that lack of postseason experience didn't hurt his candidacy in the eyes of voters. He was a three-time First Team All-Pro and a six-time Pro Bowler, and now he is a Hall of Famer.

Gronkowski -- a four-time First Team All-Pro, a five-time Pro Bowler, and a member of the All-2010s Team -- can make many of the same claims Johnson has to Hall of Fame worthiness. And now that Johnson's earned the vote, there should't be any reason for anyone to make Gronkowski wait for a year or two to be fitted for a gold jacket, once he officially hits the ballot.

Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here. You can email him or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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