How do you put Rob Gronkowski’s mesmerizing career into words? I don’t know, but I’ll try.
It’s surreal to be talking about Gronk in the past tense, because in many ways, it feels like he just got here. In a move that was equal parts predictable and deeply unsatisfying, the jovial tight end announced Sunday that he has spiked his last football. Gronkowski’s reign of NFL mastery lasted a mere nine years, less than half of Tom Brady’s remarkable run, but every time the absurdly-talented 29-year-old took the field, it was must-see television. Transcendent, exhilarating, breathtakingly unstoppable—Robert James Gronkowski was all those traits rolled into one, a Neapolitan of athletic dominance. But above all, Gronk was just flat-out fun.
Gronk was a gridiron wizard, the type of jaw-dropping physical marvel that only comes along a few times in a generation (Duke’s tornado of a power forward Zion Williamson has taken up the mantle as basketball’s resident freak of nature). But of all the spells he cast throughout his brilliant, expectation-shattering career, the real genius of Rob Gronkowski was his immense charm. Even the most decorated of Patriots haters couldn’t stop themselves from getting a kick out of Gronk and his relentless silliness. On a team that prides itself in its bland, soldier-like approach, Gronkowski was a welcome reprieve, a twerking, giggling, beer-guzzling man-child who took great amusement in his own, tenuous grasp of the Spanish language while mimicking the comic sensibilities of Michael Scott. Despite indulging in extravagant party cruises, horse-racing entrepreneurial pursuits and the occasional WrestleMania cameo—all activities that conflict with New England’s straight-laced agenda—Gronk worked as hard as anyone both on and off the field and reaped the benefits of that obsessive commitment.
Could Gronk make a comeback?
Gronk’s tireless work ethic was the secret sauce in his recipe for success, but burning the candle at both ends clearly took a toll on the future Hall of Famer, who spent the latter part of his career battling a near-endless string of injuries. The once-bullet-proof tight end finally showed signs of decline in 2018, averaging his fewest receiving yards since 2010 (his debut season) while also enduring a rare six-game touchdown drought. The 6’6”/268-pound Hercules was never a burner but even by the modest standards set forth by other similarly-speed challenged tight ends, Gronk moved like he was strapped to a 10-ton vault last season (that comparison was inspired by a scene from Fast Five). Never was his diminishing skill set more apparent than during the infamous Miami Miracle. Tasked with playing deep safety on a Hail Mary that never took place, Gronk was put on skates by Kenyan Drake, who sunk the Patriots with a walk-off touchdown.
Sitting at a tepid 9-5 with Gronk a shell of his former self and Brady finally beginning to play like his age, it looked like it was curtains for New England’s decaying dynasty. A near-decade of wear-and-tear manifested itself in the most frustrating season of Gronkowski’s career but rather than submitting to Father Time’s increasingly harsh demands, the unflappable goliath dusted off his Superman cape one last time to save the Patriots from certain destruction. Even with his star quickly fading, the nine-year vet dug deep for one last taste of playoff glory, leading the Patriots to arguably the most-hard-fought of their six Super Bowl triumphs.
The Buffalo native put on a blocking clinic in a Divisional Round win over the Chargers (that would prove to be his Gillette Stadium swan song) before massacring the Chiefs with a blistering display of clutch catches, none more back-breaking than this 25-yard gem against All-Pro Eric Berry. Gronk made sure to go out on top by lending a helping hand in Super Bowl LIII (his fourth appearance on the league’s biggest stage), propelling New England to a sixth title on the strength of six grabs for 87 yards. Before riding into the sunset, the former Arizona Wildcat graced us all with one last masterpiece, gobbling up this missile from Brady in sprawling, acrobatic fashion. That 29-yard pickup facilitated the game’s first and only touchdown as Gronkowski hoisted the Lombardi Trophy for the third and final time of his storied career. Years of battle scars couldn’t prevent the inevitable as Gronk’s end-of-career resurrection served as a reminder of his enduring brilliance, lighting up the canvas with master brush strokes while the rest of the league painted by numbers.
In a landscape full of high-maintenance divas (looking at you, Antonio), Gronkowski was never that. He didn’t hold out or publicly gripe about his contract like other disgruntled stars. Despite his meathead aesthetic—he looks like an amalgamation of everyone you’ve ever met on spring break—Gronkowski was universally beloved by coaches and equally lauded for his locker room presence. While countless stars of similar cachet have gone the brooding, “woe-is-me” route, Gronk never subscribed to that philosophy. Always brimming with positivity, the tight end’s lighthearted nature provided a perfect chaser for Bill Belichick’s signature bitterness.
Some have scoffed at the assertion that Gronkowski is the greatest tight end ever (Rod Woodson even dismissed the notion of him being a first-ballot Hall of Famer) and while his counting stats don’t measure up to longer-tenured colleagues like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, there’s no denying Gronk’s incredible efficiency. As mentioned in a recent article from analytics site Fivethirtyeight.com, the Patriots’ all-time touchdown leader averaged a ludicrous 9.9 yards per target for his career, the highest rate by any receiver—not just tight ends but all pass-catchers—in the last quarter-century. Simply put, when Brady looked his way, good things happened. Throttling opponents with his unique blend of dexterity and size, Gronk made beautiful, blunt-forced poetry, packing a punch with each and every catch. He was football Hemingway, precise and economical in his supreme brilliance.
Brady has spun rockets to a host of elite pass-catchers over the years—Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Julian Edelman to name a few—but of all his weapons, nobody presented a more difficult matchup than Gronkowski. Lana Berry called the frisky tight end “America’s golden retriever” but I think Eric Weddle may have been closer to the mark when he compared him to a charging rhinoceros. Either way, we’re all in agreement that Gronk in his prime was beyond human.
Gronkowski’s receiving exploits were obviously well-documented but he also thrived as a blocker, routinely dominating the line of scrimmage while paving the way for a cavalcade of ball-carriers ranging from 250-pound steamroller LeGarrette Blount to pint-sized Dion Lewis. Even when he disappeared in the passing game for stretches last year, the five-time Pro Bowler still proved his worth by opening running lanes for Sony Michel, who bull-dozed his way to a rookie-record six postseason touchdowns. There’s no denying Tony Gonzalez’s receiving credentials, but in terms of all-around mastery at the tight end position, Gronk still takes the cake.
Sunday’s Instagram announcement, though devastating for Pats fans and Gronkowski’s many long-time admirers, was not even a mild surprise. Retirement had been on his mind for quite some time. He let the Patriots sweat it out last offseason, giving cryptic quotes after the Patriots’ Super Bowl loss to Philadelphia while mostly remaining absent from team activities. Gronk did resurface—he announced his return ahead of April’s draft—but not before New England worked the phones, nearly brokering a trade with the Lions, coached by former Pats defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. The four-time All-Pro quickly nixed it, wielding the threat of retirement as leverage. Gronk later remarked that whatever deal the Patriots had in mind for him, the Tide POD enthusiast wasn’t going anywhere without his partner in crime, Tom Brady.
Gronkowski left plenty of loot—over $10 million—on the table by walking away, but with a chronic back condition and a trophy case chock full of hardware, the former second-rounder decided to quit while he was ahead. On the surface 29 seems too young to pack it in, especially considering the caliber of player Gronk was, but early retirements seem to be a growing league-wide trend. With CTE a bigger talking point than ever, players of this generation have become more mindful in preserving their long-term health. Calvin Johnson and Patrick Willis both retired at 30 for this very reason and now that Gronk has done the same, surely others will follow suit. And unlike single-minded football savant Tom Brady, Gronk seems to have interests outside of football (he’s dabbled in acting, among other pursuits) and thanks to smart financial planning (that one night at Foxwoods not withstanding), he’ll have a decent nest egg to fall back on. And though football appears to be in Gronkowski’s rear-view mirror, agent Drew Rosenhaus believes the door is still open a smidge if Brady calls for reinforcements this season.
Ideally, Gronkowski would have alerted the Patriots of his plans prior to free agency and perhaps he did. That would explain their reported interest in Jared Cook, who is said to be joining the Saints coming off a career-best 896 receiving yards in 2018. The Patriots’ tight end pantry is pretty bare right now—Denver transplant Matt LaCosse would be their starter if the season opened today—but with the draft fast-approaching, help is on the way. Iowa teammates T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant are widely regarded as the cream of this year’s tight end crop and could both be of interest to the Patriots, assuming either are still available at pick No. 32.
It’s been a stagnant offseason for the Pats, who failed to woo a marquee receiver in free agency (Adam Humphries and Golden Tate were their primary targets) while watching mammoth tackle Trent Brown and feisty edge rusher Trey Flowers both cash in elsewhere. Gronkowski’s departure is the biggest blow yet but remember the team in question here is the Patriots, the NFL’s infuriating infestation. Resilience is in their blood. Boston is the city with a chip on its shoulder and the Patriots seem to embrace that “us against the world” mentality. It’s always nice to have a living legend like Gronk in your back pocket but even when the chips are down, Brady and Belichick always find a way. This year shouldn’t be any different.
Gronk was a hurricane on the gridiron, a mountainous physical specimen who made every yard entertaining. Between his 80 end-zone visits—third-most among tight ends—four 1,000-yard receiving seasons and three rings, Gronkowski made his mark and he did it emphatically. Now that he’s said his goodbyes, who will take Gronk’s place atop the tight end hierarchy? Travis Kelce seems like the obvious torchbearer—if he wasn’t tight end royalty already, last year’s monumental 103-1,336-10 receiving line probably did the trick. You could also make a case for Zach Ertz, who set a tight end record with 116 catches last season. But if you’re looking for all-around proficiency, the true heir to Gronk’s throne resides in San Francisco, home of Niners sensation George Kittle. The Iowa alum took sophomore leap to a new level in 2018, shattering Gronk’s mark for the most single-season receiving yards by a tight end while also grading out as the top run-blocker at his position according to ProFootballFocus. Kittle has all the tools to be a generational tight end and his outlook only stands to improve with the return of ace quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, whose 2018 campaign was ruined by an ACL tear in Week 3.
Kittle has juice but let’s not put the cart before the horse. Gronkowski remains the top rung on the tight end latter and Kittle still has much climbing to do. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said, “There will never be another Gronk.” And he’s right.