Patriots tight end is best in NFL history

The New England Patriots just lost a GOAT.

No, Tom Brady isn’t going anywhere. But, with apologies to Randy Moss, TB12 won’t be throwing to arguably the best weapon he’s ever had and inarguably — in my humble opinion — the greatest tight end in league history.

Sadly, Gronk has left the building.

As March Madness’ weekend action wound down Sunday evening, Rob Gronkowski introduced a heavy dose of chaos to the reigning Super Bowl champions, announcing on Instagram that his illustrious career had come to an end after nine unforgettable years.

“My life experiences over the last 9 years have been amazing both on and off the field. The people I have meet, the relationships I have built, the championships I have been apart of, I just want to thank the whole New England Patriots organization for every opportunity I have been giving and learning the great values of life that I can apply to mine,” wrote Gronkowski, 29.

“Cheers to all who have been part of this journey, cheers to the past for the incredible memories, and a HUGE cheers to the uncertain of whats next.”

Whether broadcasting, acting, business or some combination therein lies in Gronk’s future, it seems inevitable he’ll remain squarely in the public eye.

But what should certainly be “next” football-wise is a first-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame in 2024, because no one did it better.

Statheads may scream otherwise. And no, Gronkowski can’t match the volume of catches and yards Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Jason Witten and Shannon Sharpe amassed. Yet all of them played at least 14 seasons. And Gronk was no slouch, his 7,861 receiving yards ranking seventh at his position, and his 79 TD grabs trailing only Gates (116) and Gonzalez (111), who both played nearly twice as long.

But if it’s numbers you want …

Consider Gronkowski averaged 68.4 yards a game — that projects to nearly 1,100 over a full season — best among tight ends. All tight ends. Ever. Only Travis Kelce (65.5 ypg) is in the neighborhood.

Gronkowski’s 1,327 yards in 2011 set the single-season standard at the position until Kelce and George Kittle overtook it last year. But Gronk’s 17 TD catches in 2011 are still a record for tight ends and mark the only time one has led the league in that category.

Only one tight end has caught more than 500 career passes and averaged better than 15 yards per reception. Only one has more than 1,000 yards (1,163 to be exact) in postseason history.

Yep, you guessed it.

No tight end has been better on Super Sunday. Gronkowski’s 23 receptions for 297 yards are both Super Bowl records at the position. He nearly caught the Hail Mary (on a badly injured ankle) that would have salvaged Super Bowl XLVI against the Giants. He was sublime in defeat against the Eagles a year ago, superb in victory against Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX.

And he made perhaps the pivotal play in his final appearance, that 13-3 win over the Rams just last month in Super Bowl LIII. The last reception of his brilliant career came in the fourth quarter, a 29-yard snatch from Brady down to the Rams’ 2-yard line with the game tied 3-3 (and it occurred even with Gronkowski’s quad grotesquely swollen, a byproduct of a collision in the first half). Sony Michel scored the contest’s only touchdown on the next snap, and New England cruised from there to a sixth Lombardi Trophy.

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“Rob will leave an indelible mark on the Patriots organization and the game as among the best, most complete players at his position to ever play,” said New England coach Bill Belichick, a custodian of the game who’s careful not to let emotion sway the context he so deftly provides after more than four decades on NFL sidelines.

Did Gronk benefit from playing at a time when the pass was in vogue? Sure. He wasn’t a trail blazer in the fashion of Hall of Famers John Mackey or Mike Ditka — they revolutionized the position as a weapon in the 1960s — or Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow, predominantly receiving tight ends who underscored the mismatch potential against linebackers and safeties in the 1980s.

The Gronk persona certainly helped burnish his legend — though Belichick almost unfailingly noted what an unselfish and intelligent teammate Gronkowski was — but it was his physical dominance that truly distinguished him.

The tight ends with the gaudy receiving numbers — almost to a man, with the exception of Witten — can’t, didn’t or wouldn’t block like Gronkowski. He willingly did the dirty work, even last season, when his laundry list of accumulated injuries (ankle, arm, knee, hamstring, groin, back) diminished his impact as a downfield force. However his physicality at the line of scrimmage was a major reason the Patriots recast themselves as a smashmouth outfit in December and into the playoffs.

I remember when I first met him on Jan. 14, 2012, in Foxborough. He caught 10 passes for 145 yards and scored three times in a 45-10 rout of the Broncos in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Denver defense simply had no answer on an evening which helped herald the “Gronk Spike” into football’s lexicon. (Alas, his amazing effort that night was largely overshadowed by Tim Tebow’s spectacular demise.)

My favorite Gronkowski memory occurred during a 42-20 rout of the Colts in 2014. His four catches for 71 yards and a TD were a typical day’s work. But it was when he engaged safety Sergio Brown and blocked him right off the field during a running play for Jonas Gray (remember him?) that resulted in a touchdown that Gronk’s preeminence — as a football player and entertainer — was forever seared into my memory.

“(Brown) was just yappin’ at me the whole time,” Gronkowski said. “So I took him and threw him out of the club.”

Classic. And unparalleled. 

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Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis

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