The draft pick didn’t even belong to the Patriots.
“Gronkowski has prototypical size and speed… Possesses the lateral quickness and burst to get open in man coverage… Does not have a great top-end speed and may not be able to stretch the field at the next level. Lacks the elusiveness to make people miss after catch.”
That’s a taste of what scouts were saying prior to the 2010 NFL Draft.
The tight end culture in New England did not begin with Gronkowski, nor will it end with him. In the first decade of the Patriots’ dynasty, now going on 20 years, guys like Christian Fauria, Daniel Graham, and Ben Watson had the honor of playing tight end for Tom Brady.
The pre-Gronk Patriots did just fine. They won three Super Bowls. They went 16-1 in 2007, the year Brady won his first of three league MVP awards. Then 2008 happened. Tom Brady tore his ACL in the season opener, and the Patriots missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002. The following year did not go much better. The Patriots lost to the Ravens in the 2009 Wild Card Round, marking Brady’s first ever playoff loss at home.
In three years, the Patriots had lost in the Super Bowl to spoil an undefeated season, lost the greatest quarterback of all time for an entire season, and got blown out in the Wild Card round. Then 2010 came along, and with it a turning point in the New England Patriots’ dynasty.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the original owners of the draft pick that would turn into Rob Gronkowski. They traded it, the 42nd overall pick, to the Raiders. The Patriots owned the 44th overall pick. The Patriots acquired pick 42 from Oakland for pick 44, a 6th rounder, and a 7th rounder. In classic Patriots fashion, they turned a minor expense into a major profit. They knew the value Gronkowski had, despite the concerns about his durability, and they took a chance. Little did they, or anyone else, know the league-altering impact Number 87 would have when all was said and done.
If you were holding your breath until Gronkowski scored his first professional touchdown, you didn’t have to wait long. His first trip to the end zone came during his first game, on his first catch, and was the first time Tom Brady ever threw him the football in a real game. His 10 touchdowns in his rookie season helped his quarterback win his second league MVP award. He became the youngest rookie ever to score three touchdowns in a game. To top it off, he didn’t miss a single game or practice all year.
At 22 years old, in his sophomore season, the 6-foot, 6-inch, 265 pound physical specimen led the league in receiving touchdowns with 17. More than Calvin Johnson, more than Jordy Nelson, more than Jimmy Graham. Gronkowski has caught 78 touchdowns from Tom Brady, the most by any player in history. The next person on the list only caught 39, just half of Gronk’s total.
His name? Randy Moss.
Gronkowski earned four First Team All-Pro selections, and five trips to the Pro Bowl. He has the most touchdowns by any player in the last decade. He played nine seasons for the Patriots. They went to the Super Bowl in five of those nine seasons, and won three of them. After crunching some numbers, the Patriots won 33% of the Super Bowls that occurred when Gronkowski was in the league, and played in 55% of them.
The accolades go on and on.
Gronk is retiring with an absolutely preposterous amount of NFL records pic.twitter.com/vpmxWlc6vq
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) March 24, 2019
The statistics and records alone can give you a pretty good idea of how Rob Gronkowski impacted the game of football, but it goes far beyond numbers on a screen.
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The Essence of Gronk
He was too fast for linebackers. He was too strong for defensive backs. Rob Gronkowski is one of, if not the most unguardable players in the history of football. He towered over his defenders. He was a living, breathing matchup nightmare. When he wasn’t throwing defenders to the ground, planting a lineman on his back with a block, or spiking the football into middle earth, he had a smile on his face. He probably had a smile on his face doing those things, too.
My use of the past tense here is a coping method, as I really can’t believe we’ve seen the last of Number 87.
The league will never see anyone like Rob Gronkowski ever again. He played the game with passion, happiness, and a combination of agility and power that only he could manage. Dealing with injury after injury, he persevered, pushing his body to its limits time and time again throughout his hall of fame career.
Many have questioned, and will continue to question, what could’ve been if he stayed healthy.
But I think that’s the wrong way of looking at it. Don’t think about the wasted talent. Think about the rare, perhaps one of a kind, physical specimen that fell into the Patriots’ laps and left it all out on the field for nine seasons. Gronkowski gave everything he could to New England, and then some. It would be misguided to focus on speculation with the plethora of moments Gronkowski provided for Patriot Nation in his career.
A Trip Down Memory Lane
There’s too many for me to include them all, so I’ve narrowed it down to three of my favorite Gronkowski plays.
It was 2nd and 6 with 30 seconds remaining in the first half. Gronkowski lined up out wide to Brady’s right, and drew single coverage with a linebacker. At that point, six points were all but guaranteed. He gave the slightest hesitation to start the route, and then he was gone. The touchdown gave the Patriots the lead, and a much-needed six points with the Seahawks waiting to score their own touchdown before halftime.
The game was knotted at 3-3 with seven minutes left in regulation. The Patriots faced a 2nd and 3 on the Rams’ 31 yard line, and it seemed like the first team to reach the end zone was going to take home the Lombardi Trophy. Gronkowski lined up in the left slot and ran a very simple seam route. Blanketed by not one, not two, but three defenders, Gronkowski left his feet and dove forward to make the catch. It was the perfect catch for the perfect throw, and it quickly resulted in seven points.
The Patriots faced a 20-12 deficit to the Denver Broncos with 90 seconds left. It was 4th and 10 from the Patriots’ 49 yard line. Gronkowski took off from the right slot, drawing double coverage immediately. Brady never considered throwing it to anyone else. It was a prayer in desperate times. Bigger and stronger than both of them, Gronkowski gained a step and that was all he needed. They were all over him as soon as the ball arrived, but it didn’t matter. Gronkowski kept the Patriots’ season alive with arguably the greatest catch of his career.
Equally fast and strong, equally competitive and lighthearted. When he wasn’t carrying defenders for yards after a catch, he was bulldozing holes in the line for his running backs. One of the most imposing physical talents in the history of organized sports. Rob Gronkowski dominated on and off the field, and will not only go down as the greatest tight end ever, but also one of the most gifted football players that’s ever passed through the NFL.
Next stop: Canton.
–Ethan Roy is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @_ethanroy
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