Well, folks, he did it. He’s calling it a career at 29.
Listening to his body, Rob Gronkowski put out a message on Instagram on Sunday saying that he is retiring from the NFL after eight seasons, all with the Super Bowl Champion Patriots. After years and years of this surgery and that surgery, of this shortened season and that shortened season, Gronk is walking away. One has to wonder if he will become the next biggest movie star, the next biggest YouTube sensation, the next biggest anything he puts his mind to.
But one melancholy element remains. Gronk will never play for the Patriots again. Gronk likes to party, but that thought is as sobering as it gets.
Kansas City fans will say Tony Gonzalez. Charger fans will throw the name Antonio Gates into the fray. The Cowboys will offer up former ESPN broadcaster/returning tight end Jason Witten. Heck, Chicagoland will strike back with “Ditka!” Other teams will throw in their entry for the tight end GOAT.
Patriot fans will yell “Gronk” loudly, strongly, and quite often.
Are they right?
Gronkowski is 104th all time in receiving yards (Gonzalez is 6th, the next tight end is Witten at 21), and is 130th in total receptions (Gonzalez is 2nd, Witten is 4th, Gates is 17th). So by the numbers, the case is a weak one. Gronkowski missed a lot of playing time due to injury, and he doesn’t have the longevity of the other gentlemen.
But many NFL experts not only see Gronkowski as a future Hall of Famer, they see him as a first ballot enshrinee. If that be the case, Gronk enters some very rarefied air, some very select company, and this might help support a ground swell to make him the tight end GOAT.
Gronk is not yet 30. Only two other former NFL players became first ballot Hall of Famers without ever playing a game into their 30s. The other two players? Jim Brown and Gale Sayers. That right there has to put Gronk in the discussion.
Numbers aside, when healthy, who was Tom Brady’s number one go-to guy over the last two decades?
Troy Brown? Wes Welker? Julian Edelman?
Or was it Gronk?
If Gronkowski does indeed become the tight end GOAT in the eyes of the majority of NFL experts, it will have to be based on subjective analysis, not stats-based. The stats don’t support him. But watching him play either does, or perhaps does.
Gronkowski was the guy who could always get you that first down. He could do it even being held by one defender. Sometimes being held by two defenders.
His athleticism for a guy his size is freakish. He could physically do things a guy his size can’t normally do. He was strong, fast and quick. He had great hands, one of the best pair of hands of the present day and the past decade. He could make wideout-type circus catches. He was uncoverable. He was a matchup nightmare. He would eat linebackers all day long. Just listen to Scott Zolak during Super Bowl XLIX: “A linebacker? In man-to-man coverage? All day long, baby!”
Then there’s his blocking skills. How often do you hear the praises of the blocking skills of Gonzalez, Gates and Witten being extolled? If you do, go ahead and tweet your claim. Gronk was one of the best, if not the best, blocking tight end of his day. And that goes along with all the aforementioned skills he has become legend over.
What the Patriots will miss most is his clutch. His final catch as a Patriot encapsulates the clutch element of Gronk perfectly.
It was a lob pass down the left seam late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIII. It went for 29 yards and it put the Patriots at the Rams’ 2-yard line, first and goal. Sony Michel scored the game’s only touchdown on the next play.
The Last Catch. Brady laid it in there, as perfectly as the GOAT quarterback usually does. Gronk had linebacker Cory Littleton draped all over him (but not holding him). Brady’s pass was pinpoint perfect. Gronk extended his arms, caught the ball, then fell perfectly so as not to fumble or to have the catch overturned on replay as “not finished”. The catch set up the first Red Zone play of the game for either team, with 7:03 left in the contest. In what was the tightest defensive struggle in Super Bowl history, the Last Catch will probably go down as Gronk’s greatest.
The Last Catch is what Joe Average NFL Expert, one with no ties to New England, should look at as Exhibit 1 of why Gronk should be the tight end GOAT. No, he can’t match Gonzalez, Gates or Witten on numbers. But Gronk has three Super Bowl rings, three more than any of those gentlemen combined. Call that Exhibit 2. Or 1A.
Exhibits 3 through 521 (his career catch total) should cast a better light on Gronkowski. What we have borne witness to these last eight years has been tight end masterpieces. Great catch after great catch. Miraculous catch after miraculous catch. Clutch catch after clutch catch. On and on. You’ve seen them all. And you’ve loved every one of them.
Replacing Gronk will be impossible. Had Aaron Hernandez not made some tragic life choices, he might still be around. The last previous “great” tight end was Ben Coates. He was replaced. Someone will come in and play tight end for the Patriots. But replace Gronk? Uh-uh.
The Patriots have been blessed with terrific players over the last 20 years. Ty Law will head for Canton this summer. Five years from now, Gronk probably will also.
And you the Patriot fan will head there, cheer your heart out for him when he gets his bust, and reflect on his greatness, something you’ve enjoyed so much since 2011.
But you need to calcify what you know. This is not the last time this next sentence will be typed, allowing for name substitution.
You will never, ever, see a player like Rob Gronkowski ever again.