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The Singular Greatness of Rob Gronkowski

After nine seasons in the NFL, the Patriots star is hanging up his cleats. He leaves behind a legacy as a larger-than-life personality—and the greatest tight end to ever play the game.

A photo illustration of Rob Gronkowski spiking a football Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Nobody in football history has ever been quite like Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots tight end has a one-of-a-kind personality and perhaps an even more distinctive game, and the NFL won’t be the same without him. After nine seasons, three Super Bowl championships, and what felt like countless injuries, Gronk announced his retirement from the league on Sunday. His career numbers may fall short of those of other legendary receiving tight ends, but his cumulative effect as a player surpasses them all. At his best, Gronk played the position in a way that no one else ever has.

Gronk walks away with 79 career touchdown catches (third all time at the position) and 521 career receptions (15th). Those numbers alone make him Hall of Fame worthy, but to truly grasp how dynamic he was, all one needs to do is dig into his per-game and rate stats. Gronk may not have produced the gaudy totals that Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez did, but he played roughly half as many games. For his career, Gronk averaged 9.9 yards per target, nearly a full yard more than the next closest tight end (Travis Kelce at 9.04). His 68.4 yards per game is the best mark ever at the position. At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, Gronk averaged 15.1 yards per catch. In the past 35 years, no other tight end has broken 14.7 yards. Tom Brady’s passer rating when targeting Gronk was a ridiculous 129.6.

That connection with Brady—and its role in powering the second half of the Brady-Belichick Patriots dynasty—is an undeniable part of Gronk’s legacy. The Brady–Randy Moss duo in 2007 remains the greatest single-season quarterback-receiver pairing Brady has been part of, but the Brady-Gronk tandem is the most significant of Brady’s career. Only Joe Montana and Jerry Rice have linked up for more touchdowns in NFL history. What made Gronkowski truly great, and what’s helped the Patriots sustain success for such a remarkably long stretch, was that his contributions didn’t stop at his natural chemistry with Brady. He was a matchup nightmare for defensive coordinators, a player who allowed the New England offense to be whatever it wanted, whenever it wanted. Having a tight end who routinely made catches like this opened up a lot of doors:

When the Pats wanted to line up and manhandle defenses in the ground game, Gronk essentially served as a sixth offensive lineman. He was the best blocking tight end in the NFL over the past decade. Even as his body betrayed him late in his career and the explosive pass catcher we’d come to know went missing, Gronk still helped propel New England to the Super Bowl. Last season, he consistently made his presence felt through his physical dominance up front. It was almost unfair, then, that at his apex a player this big and this strong could effortlessly flex out wide as a receiver and take advantage of any defender on the field. His dominance encouraged the team’s move to a two-tight-end offense in 2010, and in 2011, his 17 receiving touchdowns helped turn those Pats into one of the most productive offenses the league has ever seen. Truly transcendent players dictate entire game plans, and that’s precisely what Gronk did.

Outside of his X’s-and-O’s impact, Gronk will be remembered as something unthinkable: a universally beloved Patriot. He brought pure joy to an organization famed for its cold, dispassionate approach. He was fun. Even for those who despise the Pats, Gronk was a fan favorite, a beer-chugging, championship-belt-toting character who was easy to love.

The utter jubilance of Gronk’s best days is what made the twilight of his career difficult to watch at times. He was plagued by back issues since his college days at Arizona, and the totality of his injuries seemed to take a toll on him by 2017 and 2018. The reckless abandon that turned Gronk into an unstoppable force also rendered him vulnerable. As he barreled over the middle before morphing into a yards-after-catch machine, outmatched defensive backs often took to hurling themselves at his legs. By the 2018 season, the lumbering redwood of a man in the no. 87 jersey bore little resemblance to the one from earlier in his career. His body had let him down, and as it sapped his ability to be the overwhelming player he once was, it also seemed to sap the joy that had made Gronk, well, Gronk.

Of course, that wasn’t enough to keep him from having one more iconic moment. Various maladies robbed Gronk of plenty of regular-season games (he missed 29 in all throughout his career), but he always more than made up for it in the postseason. Somehow, Gronk became even more dominant come playoff time. He averaged more yards (72.7) and touchdowns per game (0.75) than he did during the regular season, and that includes the contest against Houston in 2013 when Gronk broke his arm before catching a single pass. Some of Gronk’s finest moments came in New England’s most important games (see: his touchdown catch over K.J. Wright in Super Bowl XLIX), so it should have come as no surprise that Brady twice turned to Gronk when he needed huge plays late in this year’s Super Bowl win against the Rams. Gronkowski’s 29-yard reception that got New England inside the Los Angeles 2-yard line and set up the championship-winning touchdown was a fitting capstone on his career. After Gronk burned linebacker Cory Littleton up the seam, Brady dropped a nearly perfect ball over his tight end’s shoulder as Gronk slid to the turf to make the catch just inches off the ground. On the very next play, Sony Michel plunged the ball into the end zone, and the Pats’ sixth Super Bowl win was secure.

That final highlight marked a brilliant end to a brilliant career. The pain of Gronk’s final seasons was agonizing at times—taking an immense physical and mental toll—but what happened in the Super Bowl gave one of the best players of his generation a chance to leave the sport on his terms. Gronk is a larger-than-life figure, and the most impactful, well-rounded tight end to ever play the game. There has never been anyone like Gronk. And there may never be a football player like him again.