It was the Instagram post that shook the NFL. New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski took to the social media platform Sunday night to announce what had been speculated for the better part of two years: He was retiring from football at age 29, leaving the Pats less than two months after New England won Super Bowl LIII. Despite his relatively short career, Gronk seems like an ironclad lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame based on his three championships and many spike-worthy touchdowns. And there’s plenty of evidence that the traditional markers of tight end production undersell Gronkowski’s success. When healthy, Gronk was one of the most efficient offensive weapons in NFL history, notable as much for the nightmares he caused defenses as for the short amount of time his star shone (or his party-loving ways off the field).
Not that Gronkowski’s conventional stats are anything to scoff at. He was named to the Pro Bowl in five of the seven seasons in which he played more than half of the Patriots’ games and was the first-team All-Pro tight end in four of those years. In the 2010s, no tight end had more receiving yards, and no receiver of any kind scored more receiving touchdowns. Only two tight ends in history — Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez — have more regular-season career TD catches, and Gronkowski caught 12 more in the postseason, which ties him with John Stallworth for the second-most playoff TDs among all players behind Jerry Rice.
On a per-16-game basis, the average Gronk campaign would consist of 72 catches, 1,094 yards and 11 touchdowns — numbers that would rank among the top 25 tight end seasons in history. And Gronkowski sustained that pace for nine seasons.
Those numbers are only scratching the surface in terms of how valuable Gronk was to Tom Brady and the Patriots over the years. On a per-target basis, Gronkowksi picked up 9.9 yards — basically an entire first down every time the ball was thrown in his direction — according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. Since 1992 (the first season for target data on PFR), that’s the best of any receiver — wideout or tight end — in the NFL.
Good things happened when you throw to Gronk
Most career yards per target for NFL players, 1992-2018
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Remember longtime Vikings WR Cris Carter’s old reputation — “all he does is catch touchdowns”? For Gronkowski, that was closer to being true than for any player of his generation — and it was a very good thing for the Patriots. With 521 career receptions and 79 career touchdown grabs, Gronk hauled in a TD once every 6.6 catches. Only eight players in NFL history with a minimum of 400 lifetime receptions — Don Hutson, Paul Warfield, Tommy McDonald, Art Powell, Jimmy Orr, Wesley Walker, Randy Moss and Lance Alworth — caught touchdowns as a greater share of their total catches than Gronkowski did.
With those rates of great things happening whenever he was involved in the play, it’s easy to make a case that Gronkowski was the most efficient receiver (of any type) in NFL history. What’s more, Gronkowski consistently made his teammates more efficient, too.
When our colleague Kyle Wagner looked at Gronk’s impact during the 2017-18 playoffs, he found that Brady’s passing efficiency numbers were significantly higher when his favorite tight end was on the field than not, one of the big ways Gronkowski has been a secret weapon for the Pats during the latter phase of their record-smashing dynasty. Since Gronk’s debut in 2010, Brady’s passer rating when targeting Gronkowski is 124.7, but it was just 96.8 when throwing to any other receiver. Even when it came to the greatest quarterback of all time, Gronkowski found a way to make him look much better.
And then there was Gronkowski’s effect as a blocker. He frequently graded out as the best blocking tight end in the game, according to ProFootballFocus.com’s ratings. This aspect of his game made Gronk an asset whether the play call was a pass or run — keeping the Patriots from having to sub him in and out depending on the situation, or having his presence tip the Pats’ hand on which type of play was coming. No matter what Gronkowski was asked to do, he generated a mismatch with the defense.
(All of this is to say nothing of the fun-loving image Gronkowski cultivated both on and off the field. We’ll leave others to judge his extracurricular activities, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t reference this great description of Gronkowski’s playing style from The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay: He was “six-foot-6, 265 pounds, galloping straight at you in the open field like a pony who just broke loose at a children’s birthday party.”)
Gronkowski was still a valuable player in 2018, but there’s no denying that he was a shell of his old self. According to ProFootballFocus, he was ranked 11th best overall at the position. But as he showed in the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory this year, Gronkowski could still be a game-changing player. His 29-yard reception in the fourth quarter set New England up on the goal line, leading to the game’s only touchdown. While Gronkowksi’s impact as a blocker generated great fanfare during the regular season and in the playoffs, he also was the team’s primary downfield weapon after Josh Gordon exited New England, averaging 16.4 air yards per reception, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. That was more than 50 percent greater than Brady’s overall mark per attempt during the same span.
Few Hall of Famers have ever retired before their age-30 season,1 but Gronkowski is destined to join a group that also includes Jim Brown, Terrell Davis, Kenny Easley and Gale Sayers (among modern2 players). Though his time in the NFL was relatively short, Gronk made his mark on the league as a receiver, blocker and all-around offensive terror. The game — and its greatest quarterback — will miss him dearly next season.