With an Instagram post heard round the world (or at least around Patriot nation), the NFL just became a lot less fun. Everyone’s favorite beer-chugging, big-hugging, deflation-spiking touchdown machine has left the building. Sure, he might have been a small annoyance to the generally buttoned-up New England coaches, but there’s no question that his antics were well worth his production on the field. Gronk’s presence allowed the Patriots offense to run efficiently, and it will be hard to replace his unique combination of size, speed and skill. The man was just a matchup nightmare from the moment he entered the league. Too big for slot corners. Too fast for linebackers. Huge mitts that don’t miss many catch attempts. Too good a blocker for pretty much anyone to get past.
Ask around the New England locker room and you’ll hear that refrain about Gronk. That despite his prowess as a pass catcher and his gaudy receiving numbers during his prime, he took the most pride in successful blocking plays, springing rushers for huge gains, or helping move the pile on third and short.
It’s a bit of a window into the mindset of a player who ranks among the top tight ends of all time. Given better health and a few more years, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that Gronkowski would own many of the career receiving records amongst tight ends. Gronk averaged an insane 15.1 yards per catch, and perhaps more strikingly 9.9 yards per target. Meaning essentially that every time Tom Brady tossed the ball in his general direction, it was a first down. He hauled in 79 touchdown receptions, the most in Patriot in history. His presence made Brady a far more efficient passer. With Gronk on the field during their time together, Brady completed five percent more of his passes and threw twenty-five percent fewer interceptions on average. That, to oversimplify greatly, is the difference between greatness and mediocrity. And that’s where I think we need to pause for a minute, because those stats bely a deeper truth about Gronkowski that has greatly extended the Patriots ability to contend year in and year out.
The threat of Gronkowski as a pass-catching boogeyman for opposing defenses can not be overstated. I’ve said before that defensive coordinators were stuck with a devil’s bargain when covering Gronk. Double him, or risk huge gains. Most choose that path and allow other receivers to beat them. The value of decoy-Gronk is almost as high as actual Gronk. Higher in recent years, if we’re to be honest with ourselves.
It would be easy to call this the beginning of the end for the Patriots dynasty, but I think that sort of hyperbole is too simple. Yes, Tom Brady has been a vastly different quarterback with Gronk than without him. But that was always when the offseason was spent preparing for him to be part of the offense. Game planning for his absence, not around it, is a completely different matter. Help may come by way of the draft, though I doubt that either of Iowa’s prized tight ends will fall to thirty-second overall.
Nine years may seem too short a career for a player who can still dominate defenders, but with a dizzying array of injuries through his career, including a back that has never been 100% since his college days, it’s easy to see how the twenty-nine year old could choose to hang up his cleats while still in the prime of his career. After all, rumors are that Hollywood is calling, and who doesn’t want to see the inevitable Gronk-Kevin Hart buddy-cop flick?
And what if Gronkowski were to “pull a Jason Witten” and return to the field for one more season with his team?
Let’s just say that Bill Belichick will be more than willing to put up with a few shenanigans if that’s the price he has to pay.
Image Source: AP Images