The clock has been ticking on Rob Gronkowski‘s career before the New England Patriots star, who announced his retirement on Sunday afternoon, ever entered the league. Back surgery cost him his junior year at Arizona and led the 21-year-old to declare for the 2010 draft, where the missing year pushed him into the second round. Bill Belichick might be a legend for trading down, but in a rare trade up, he sent a sixth-rounder to the Oakland Raiders to move up two spots to grab Gronk.
Presumably out of concerns over the long-term viability of that back, Gronkowski locked in financial security after two seasons by signing a six-year, $54 million extension with New England. (Players who were drafted after the new collective bargaining agreement was signed in 2011 aren’t even allowed to sign extensions two years into their rookie deals anymore.) Gronkowski was often brilliant on the field over the ensuing seven seasons, but he never played a 16-game season again and missed 29 contests with a variety of injuries, including a torn ACL, fractured forearm and bad hamstring. A high-ankle sprain slowed him in the Super Bowl XLVI loss to the New York Giants.
More than any of the other injuries, though, the bad back hung over Gronkowski. Another surgery cost him a chunk of the 2013 season. A huge hit from Earl Thomas led to another back surgery in 2016. An unspecified back problem then flared up twice in practice during the 2018 season and cost him three games. The physical burden of playing professional football the way he played was going to catch up to him sooner rather than later, and it’s why we’re seeing one of the greatest players of this generation retire before he turns 30.
If you’re thinking about that laterals play against the Dolphins in which Kenyan Drake put Gronk — miscast for a brief moment as a safety — on skates as proof that he wasn’t the same threat to opposing teams by the time he retired, think again. This is an enormous loss for the Patriots, who will fundamentally have to rethink how they approach their offense without their star tight end. I have no doubt that the Belichick and Tom Brady braintrust will figure things out, but if you want to see just how uniquely important Gronkowski was to the Patriots, you only have to go back to February and what now looks to be his final NFL game.
The last glimpse of Gronk
In a Super Bowl in which the Patriots saw drive after drive stall out in no man’s land and scored just three points across their first 10 offensive possessions, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had to change something to try to spring his offense. In a three-play sequence that swung the game toward the Patriots and set up the only touchdown of the game, McDaniels called the same play out of the personnel grouping three times in a row.
The play was Hoss Y-Juke, a familiar staple for the Pats throughout the Brady-Belichick era. What made it so vexing for the Rams to stop is that the Patriots came out in 22 personnel (2 TEs, 2 RBs) with fullback James Develin, a running back, Julian Edelman, and two tight ends in Dwayne Allen and Gronk. The natural reaction to 22 personnel is to come out with a base defense and four defensive backs to try to stop the run, and indeed, that’s how L.A. defensive coordinator Wade Phillips tried to defend it each time.
I wrote at length about this series in my Super Bowl recap, but what made this entire concept work was Gronkowski. Because he is one of the best blocking tight ends in football, Phillips had to honor the threat of the run by leaving the base defense on the field.
In doing that, the Rams were doomed. The Patriots split out Gronkowski in the slot three consecutive times and had him run seam routes (the ‘ss’ in “Hoss”) against overmatched Rams defenders. He didn’t get the ball on either of the first two plays, but on the third, the Rams tried to disguise their pressure and Cory Littleton spun toward him in the slot at the last moment. Brady wasn’t fooled and lobbed a pass to Gronkowski, who ran past Littleton and brought in a 29-yard catch to set up first-and-goal. Sony Michel punched in the ball one play later.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) February 4, 2019
All of this works because Gronk allows the Patriots to beat opposing defenses regardless of how they line up. Other tight ends can’t do that. Throw in a great receiving tight end like Travis Kelce or Jared Cook as part of that 22 package instead of him, and the Rams might as well have brought in their nickel defense, because those tight ends are far more threatening as pass-catchers than they are as blockers. If the Patriots had an excellent blocking tight end like Lee Smith or Nick Boyle replacing Gronk, the Rams wouldn’t have been stressed about the Patriots splitting them out, because Littleton and Mark Barron could have covered those guys on seam routes.
The magic of Gronk is that he gave the Patriots a way to make defenses wrong before the ball was even snapped. Le’Veon Bell marketed himself (unrealistically) as a legitimate No. 1 running back and No. 2 wideout, but Gronkowski was the guy who was really the biggest mismatch in football. A healthy Gronkowski gave the Patriots the option of employing a starting-caliber wide receiver or a sixth offensive lineman on every single snap, and they used that flexibility to whip opposing defenses.
Of course, what happened after the snap was pretty special, too. Gronkowski’s legacy will stand as one of the most devastating touchdown producers in league history. In an offense in which Brady famously loves to spread the ball around and other teams routinely committed double-teams toward Gronk in the red zone, there still wasn’t any stopping the tight end. He caught a touchdown once every 6.6 receptions, and, as ESPN’s Matthew Berry pointed out, averaged 0.69 touchdowns per regular-season game. Both figures rank third all time among receivers with 500 catches or more, with Gronk trailing former teammate Randy Moss in both categories.
Throw out his limited 2018 season (and reduce the threshold to 470 catches) and Gronk would hold the record in both categories. And in what amounted to a full 16-game season of playoff games over his nine-year career, Gronkowski posted an 81-1163-12 line, good for virtually identical touchdown rates to his regular season marks. That’s without even considering his blocking, which played a huge role in New England running for 485 yards across their three playoff wins last season. Gronk was a stunningly consistent, often transcendent weapon.
How Gronk’s retirement impacts the 2019 Patriots
That’s why he’ll be so difficult to replace. There is no easy like-for-like swap for Gronkowski. Recent reports suggested that the Patriots were pursuing Jared Cook, who is finalizing a deal with the Saints and could still make a move to New England, but Cook only solves half the puzzle of replacing Gronk, because he doesn’t create the same sort of pre-snap conflicts as a possible blocker. Replacing Gronk with Cook is like replacing your smartphone with a landline. The Patriots could pursue possible trade targets like Evan Engram, Jordan Reed, and Cameron Brate, but none of those guys are Gronk.
The closest thing might be former Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson, who came off the board at No. 8 in Mel Kiper’s most recent Mock Draft. Hockenson doesn’t have the same sort of medical concerns Gronkowski had coming out of college, so there’s little reason to think he’ll fall to the Patriots at No. 32, let alone to the second round. The Pats do have two second-rounders and three third-rounders, so Belichick has some ammunition to move up if so inclined, but his track record suggests he isn’t likely to jump from the bottom of the draft into the top 10 to take a tight end. It certainly seems more likely that the Pats would stay put and end up with Alabama product Irv Smith Jr. than move up for Hockenson if the they were to draft a tight end.
It’s virtually unthinkable to think the Patriots won’t add at least one expected starter at the position, given that their tight end depth chart includes Stephen Anderson, Jacob Hollister, Matt LaCosse, and Ryan Izzo. (The Pats cut Allen, who signed with the Dolphins.) Unless they add someone with Gronk’s versatility, though, the Patriots can’t run their offense the same way. They might be better off going with a different style and adding a player at a different position than merely trying to reheat the same looks with a lesser version of their missing tight end.
What could that offense be? The Patriots reportedly made a run at free-agent receiver Adam Humphries earlier this offseason, which would have been interesting given the presence of Julian Edelman on the roster. The Super Bowl MVP is entering the final year of his deal, and while the Patriots might not want to extend a 32-year-old wideout with a torn ACL and a PED suspension in his recent past, they also could have planned on transitioning to more spread looks with both Edelman and Humphries in the lineup at the same time. Even if they weren’t willing to match Tennessee’s offer to Humphries, the Pats could draft another slot receiver or promote 2018 draftee Braxton Berrios into a meaningful role.
Given how often Belichick seems to zig when the rest of the league is zagging, though, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Patriots continue to move toward a run-heavy approach as the rest of the NFL goes crazy with passes. The Patriots used their first-round picks in the 2018 draft on Georgia offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn and running back Sony Michel. Wynn was thought of by some teams as a guard by virtue of his power as a run-blocker and relatively short arms, and while Michel is at least functionally capable of catching the football, he was drafted for his abilities as a runner. It’s also easier (and cheaper) to find a tight end who can block like Gronk as opposed to one who can stretch defenses as a receiver like he did for the past decade. The Pats might have already been preparing for the post-Gronk era before he even retired.
Moving toward the run will take some of the pressure off the 41-year-old Brady, whose passer rating fell below 100 last season for the first time since 2014. (Please note for posterity’s sake: this does not mean everyone thinks Brady sucks.) From the moment Gronkowski joined the Patriots in 2010, Brady was a different quarterback with his star tight end on the field. Over that nine-season stretch, Brady was Aaron Rodgers (104.7 passer rating, 70.0 QBR) with Gronk on the field and Kirk Cousins (95.0 passer rating, 61.7 QBR) with him sidelined or taking a breather:
Brady is still playing at a high level, and there’s a difference between a missing Gronk (where the Patriots would expect him to be in the lineup and have a hole on their roster) and a retired version (where the Patriots can at least prepare in advance to play without him around), but it’s hard to imagine that his life will get easier without having him around.
Gronk’s place in the Patriots dynasty
It goes without saying that Gronkowski will be a local legend in New England for as long as he wants. There’s no rule saying you have to stop promoting Dunkin’ Donuts after you retire. He’s free to do cruises as often he wants. There’s a chance he could make a run to WWE and headline a pay-per-view at Fenway Park. I don’t think he is going to fade into the sunset and disappear.
Where does Gronk stand, though, in relation to the Patriots of this dynasty? When we think about this incredible run of success, the first two guys who will come up — in some order — are Belichick and Brady. That’s settled. Is Gronkowski the third most important or memorable piece of the puzzle when we look back 20 years from now?
That will always be in the eye of the beholder, but let’s give it some critical thought. By Pro Football Reference‘s Approximate Value stat, Gronk ranks seventh among Patriots since 2001. Brady is obviously first. Second and third are a pair of offensive linemen in Logan Mankins and Matt Light. While I’m forever complaining that offensive linemen don’t get enough respect after their careers are over, I think people will think of Gronkowski before either Mankins or Light. Mankins notably struggled in each of the Super Bowl losses to the Giants and somehow played nine years with the Pats without winning a Super Bowl. I might put legendary Pats offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia ahead of any individual offensive lineman.
The only other offensive player ahead of Gronkowski is Wes Welker in fifth. Again, though, Welker never won a Super Bowl during his time in New England, and while he was an incredible weapon, his most famous playoff moment might be failing to come down with a would-be big-play against the Giants in Indy. I can’t put him ahead of Gronk.
Vince Wilfork and Richard Seymour are the two remaining players ahead, and while they were both excellent defensive linemen, neither put up the sort of visible production Gronk did by virtue of their roles in the defense. Seymour and Wilfork are borderline Hall of Famers, while Gronkowski should already have a golden jacket by the time Brady gets in. I don’t think it’s ridiculous to prefer either of those guys to Gronk, but I also wouldn’t blame you for pegging him ahead of them, either.
Are there other players behind Gronkowski who deserve a higher profile? Perhaps. Adam Vinatieri‘s name is deservedly etched into lore, although he was only a part of the Patriots dynasty for its first five seasons before spending the last 13 seasons in Indy. Ty Law, too, was out after four seasons. The duo of Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi helped power those early Pats defenses, but as twin linebackers, they might also steal from each other’s votes. Kevin Faulk might be in the discussion for lifetime achievement.
The recent teams also have candidates. Devin McCourty, drafted in the first round just before Gronkowski, has been the defensive anchor on three Super Bowl-winning teams. Dont’a Hightower has made some of the biggest plays in franchise playoff history, including the touchdown-saving tackle on Marshawn Lynch just before the Malcolm Butler pick and the stripsack of Matt Ryan which helped fuel the legendary comeback against the Falcons. Edelman just won Super Bowl MVP and had that unfathomable catch against Atlanta.
My argument would be that Gronk is the best player — the most surefire Hall of Famer — the Patriots have drafted and developed during Belichick’s reign. (Vinatieri will make the Hall of Fame, but he was also inherited from the Bill Parcells era.) He plays a visible position and was dominant in all facets of the game. He was probably the most charismatic and entertaining player within the dynasty, the class clown who Belichick tolerated because he was simultaneously the most devastating tight end of the modern era.
Sal Paolantonio and Mike Reiss react to Rob Gronkowski’s retirement, with Reiss saying it’s a shock to the Patriots.
Every Patriots fan also knows just how critical a healthy Gronk was to their chances. From his breakout 2011 season on, the Patriots made it to the playoffs eight times. He was injured during four of those seasons, missing three playoff runs and hobbling through a Super Bowl in the fourth with a high-ankle sprain. The Patriots lost twice in the AFC playoffs, lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl, and then launched that miraculous comeback against the Falcons.
On the other hand, he was healthy (or close to healthy) in the four remaining seasons. Those four runs resulted in two Super Bowl wins and one loss to the Eagles, in a game where Gronk racked up 116 yards and two touchdowns and the Patriots became the first team in NFL history to rack up 600 yards in a game and lose.
The other loss — the only time the Patriots had a healthy Gronkowski in his pomp and failed to make it to the Super Bowl — is the game I’ll remember most when I think back on Gronkowski’s career. It was the 2015 AFC Championship Game against the Broncos. Phillips’ defense, which led the league in DVOA, shut down a moribund Patriots running game to the extent that Brady led the Pats with 13 yards. Brady was forced to throw 56 times while being mauled, as Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware led a pass rush that knocked down the superstar quarterback a staggering 17 times.
Somehow, the Patriots took over at midfield with 1:52 left to go down 20-12. After three incompletions, the Pats faced fourth-and-10 for their season. Just as they did to spring the offense in Super Bowl LIII, the Patriots motioned Gronkowski into the slot. Phillips, being a smart defensive coordinator, moved star cornerback Chris Harris Jr. into the slot and doubled Gronk with Harris and backup safety Josh Bush splitting inside and outside leverage. Gronk, a cyborg, simply ran past them both. Brady lofted a 40-yard bomb and the Patriots staved off elimination for another series.
After the ensuing three plays gained six yards, the Patriots faced another fourth down for their season, this time from the four-yard line. No excuses here. Everyone just saw Gronkowski get open to save the Patriots’ season. You have to let someone else besides Gronk beat you. Phillips agreed and doubled Gronk again with Harris and a safety, this time Shiloh Keo. (Denver’s starting safeties, Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward, were both injured.) Again, Gronkowski beat them anyway. A pressured Brady tossed up a prayer in his direction, and the boxed-out tight end just bumped an off-balance Keo aside without stepping out of bounds and hauled in Brady’s pass. 20-18.
Would you believe me if I told you that Gronkowski got open on the failed two-point play, too? The Patriots ran a high-low route combination and rolled Brady out toward that side, with James White running out into the flat and Gronk careening toward the pylon in the back of the end zone. Edelman ran a hitch route to the middle of the field that was designed to take advantage of overaggressive pursuit, but a pressured Brady didn’t see that Edelman was covered and launched the throw in his direction. The pass was tipped and picked. Gronkowski beat Keo at the snap and was open; Brady would have needed to find a narrow window to fit his pass between the trio of Keo, Bush and Harris, all of whom might have had a play on the ball, but Gronk was probably Brady’s best chance at a completion.
That’s what I’ll remember about Rob Gronkowski. At his best, with his team’s on the season on the line, when the entire stadium knew he was getting the ball, he embarrassed a double-team from the best defense in football twice in the same possession. He was so good that we question whether Tom Brady — Tom Brady — made the right decision to not throw the ball to him on the next play. Gronk was the ultimate mismatch.