Top 10 plays of Rob Gronkowski's career
It's impossible to encapsulate all Rob Gronkowski could do on the field in just 10 plays. His skill set was so diverse, ever-evolving over time, that a description of his physical capabilities can't be limited to a handful of snaps.
It's impossible to encapsulate all Gronkowski did in some of the most important games of his career in just 10 plays. His knack for making the clutch catch, the critical block, was such that he could be considered not only the best big-game tight end of his era but one of the best big-game players of the last decade, period.
But 10 is a nice round number so we'll shoot for 10 plays that help paint a picture of Gronkowski's rare on-the-field abilities as well as his propensity for being at his best under pressure. If you think we missed any, we know. This could have taken days to put together.
10. HUMAN WRECKING BALL
Patriots-Redskins: December 11, 2011
In his second season, Gronkowski had quickly established himself as one of the best tight ends in the league. And by year's end, he put together one of the best seasons of any tight end in the history of the league. This play against the Redskins was indicative of just how physically dominating he was as a pass-catcher. On a first-and-10 play from the Patriots 40-yard line, he made a diving catch for 10 yards. But he wasn't touched. He got up, carried two defensive backs on his back for five yards, broke free, got into a full sprint, took a shot to the shin and stumbled forward for another 15 yards. He caught six passes for 160 yards and two scores. There were no answers for him when healthy that year.
9. 'THREW HIM OUT THE CLUB'
Patriots-Colts: November 17, 2014
We had to have at least one block in this set of all-time Gronkowski plays. This one wasn't the most important of his career. It came in a regular-season game against the Colts, one that landed Jonas Gray on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He's had crucial one-on-one blocks -- like when he stoned Ndamukong Suh in pass-protection in Super Bowl LIII or opened up a lane for Sony Michel's fourth-quarter score in the AFC title game -- that meant more to the Patriots franchise. But throwing Sergio Brown "out the club" might be his most memorable block because of the way in which he described it following the game. Gronkowski was penalized on the play for pancaking Brown about five yards out of bounds, but it showed his brute strength as well as just how helpless defensive backs were when he wanted to wipe them out. Throughout New England's Divisional Round win over the Chargers in January, Gronkowski was similarly dominant against their defensive-back heavy deployments. His versatility allowed the Patriots to gut lighter fronts with their run game and chuck it against heavier ones. Therein laid his value.
8. 'HOW THE [BLEEP] DID YOU CATCH THAT?'
Patriots-Broncos: November 2, 2014
For every moment after which Gronkowski could flex like he's Hogan at Wrestlemania, there were almost as many where he showed mid-air grace and coordination typically associated with players about 80 pounds lighter. This one had Tom Brady absolutely beside himself and wondering, "How the [bleep] did you catch that?" Leaping over the middle, reaching back for a throw placed behind him, Gronkowski turned and reeled it in with his left hand. It happened so fast that the ridiculousness of it was hard to appreciate in the moment. But slow-motion replays of this one are now carved into the memories of anyone who has followed this particular player as one of his best.
7. SUPER EXTENSION
Patriots-Eagles: Super Bowl LII
The Patriots came out of halftime in Super Bowl LII down 22-12 and decided that it was time to feed the player for whom the Eagles had no foolproof coverage plan. Gronkowski caught four passes for 68 yards and a touchdown, watching only 2:45 bleed off the clock, to make it a three-point game. On the following Patriots drive, the Eagles were so zeroed-in on Gronkowski that Brady didn't send a single target his way. But when three Eagles converged on the tight end down the middle of the field, Brady found one of Gronkowski's teammates -- as was so often the case -- for a 26-yard touchdown pass to Chris Hogan. Despite the attention, Brady later found Gronkowski for a go-ahead score with just over nine minutes left in the game. It was another end zone fade with corner Ronald Darby draped on him in coverage. Gronkowski left his feet, both arms outstretched to make a finger-tip grab. Corners, safeties, linebackers . . . it really didn't matter over the course of Gronkowski's career. There was no sound matchup plan for him at the height of his powers other than to throw multiple bodies in his direction. In this instance the Eagles went with one, and he made them pay.
6. CAPPING 'THE GRONK DRIVE'
Patriots-Steelers: December 17, 2017
Gronkowski took over the 2017 regular-season matchup between the two best teams in the AFC to the point that if one were to mention "The Gronk Drive" to anyone in the six New England states -- or beyond for that matter -- they'd probably know exactly what you were referencing. And this is a player who has dominated many a drive over the course of his career. But what he did to Steelers defensive back Sean Davis and the rest of Pittsburgh's secondary was like watching Michael Jordan take over a game late or Pedro Martinez finish off a complete-game shutout. Non-quarterbacks aren't supposed to choke the life out of an opposing team, play after play, the way Gronkowski did in this one. With two minutes left and the Patriots down five -- in a game many assumed would determine the No. 1 seed in the conference -- he caught a seam ball for 26, a skinny post for 27, a crosser he plucked off his shoe tops for 18 and he snagged a two-point conversion on an end-zone fade. To cap it all, he looked at Davis on the ground, laughed, and spiked the football. "He's just mauled this defense," said Jim Nantz on the CBS broadcast.
5. DESPERATION IN DENVER
Patriots-Broncos: 2015 AFC Championship Game
The Patriots didn't win this game, obviously, but the only reason they even were able to sniff a victory was because of Gronkowski and Brady's trust in Gronkowski in the final 90 seconds. Facing a fourth-and-10 play with 1:34 remaining, down 20-12, with the season on the line, Brady knew where he was going with the football before it was even snapped, it seemed. Gronkowski ran down the seam and into bracket coverage. Didn't matter. Brady quickly floated one high down the middle as Gronkowski out-ran both defenders assigned to him and made a stumbling grab for 40 yards. Suddenly, the Patriots had a real shot to go back to the Super Bowl.
4. TIP-TOE SURVIAL
Patriots-Broncos: 2015 AFC Championship Game
Truthfully, what Gronkowski did throughout the 2015 AFC title game was nothing short of remarkable. Had the Patriots won the thing, New England's final drive might have become forever known as "The Gronk Drive," and we would've had to come up with something different for what he did in Pittsburgh in 2017. He was that good. But even to reduce his performance to one drive wouldn't do him justice. He finished with 144 yards receiving and a touchdown on eight catches. That touchdown came in the game's waning seconds and kept the Patriots alive for one more snap. With 17 seconds left, on fourth down yet again, Gronkowski worked from an in-line position, ran into immediate double-coverage again, and again Brady didn't care. Throwing off his back foot, the quarterback put one near the back end line, Gronkowski jumped -- almost to slow himself down and work back to the ball -- separated from the coverage, and got both feet down in bounds to put the Patriots within two. The following two-point conversion attempt failed, and upon review, it looked like had Brady thrown to Gronkowski, who was inexplicably single-covered, they might've tied the game.
3. BERRY GETS MOSSED
Patriots-Chiefs: 2018 AFC Championship Game
There were so many key third-down conversions for the Patriots in Kansas City back in January -- they were successful on a whopping 13 of 19 -- that it's difficult to single any of them out as the one to remember. Gronkowski caught one on third-and-10 in overtime that kept the Patriots alive, a slant working against off-coverage that eventually helped put them in position to score the game-winner. Julian Edelman had a handful all his own that are impossible to rank. But Gronkowski's third-and-five conversion with less than a minute remaining in regulation, down 28-24, was as important as any. Aligned out wide against safety Eric Berry in one-on-one coverage, Gronkowski fought through a jam and never quite separated. But even in the last year of his playing career, he was athletic and coordinated enough to find the football, turn, jump and pluck the thing off of Berry's helmet to put the Patriots at the four-yard line. One play later, they were in the end zone.
2. 'EVERYBODY ON OUR SIDELINE KNEW'
Patriots-Seahawks: Super Bowl XLIX
Having two Rob Gronkowski go-routes from a wide receiver alignment in the top-three is fitting. This was a 265-pound man who could make plays down the field like the best receivers in football. And yet, when aligned by the boundary, even if he didn't get the football he could be just as critical to the success of a given play. He was the ultimate man-zone indicator, allowing Brady to understand the coverage he was looking at before the ball was snapped. If there was a corner on Gronk outside the numbers, it was likely zone, which Brady typically shreds when he has the answers to the test. If there was a safety or linebacker on Gronkowski, he was a mismatch. Against the Seahawks, in the second quarter, the Patriots thought they might get man coverage deep in Seattle territory. And when they saw KJ Wright across from Gronkowski, they knew that's what they had. They also knew where the ball had to go. "I think everybody on our sideline knew where the ball was gonna go," Josh McDaniels said in the Do Your Job special. Gronkowski beat Wright with a stutter-and-go for a 22-yard score to give the Patriots a second-quarter lead.
1. GOING OUT ON TOP
Patriots-Rams: Super Bowl LIII
With 7:46 left in the Super Bowl, at the Rams 31-yard line, the play Gronkowski made wasn't the most awe-inspiring of his career. He didn't embarrass anyone in the open field the way he did in Washington more than seven years prior. He didn't overpower someone as a run-blocker. He didn't look like a hulking ballerina, twisting and turning incomprehensibly as he reeled in a pass. But what he did was make arguably the biggest play of the last game of his career, one that would earn him his third Super Bowl ring. Rams safety John Johnson dropped back into the deep middle portion of the field, leaving Cory Littleton to carry Gronkowski up the seam one-on-one. The 6-foot-3, 228-pound linebacker was giving up about four inches and 35 pounds to the future Hall of Famer, and Brady didn't hesitate to pull the trigger. Gronkowski dove, after a season in which he was physically and mentally beaten down, after a career that many believed would never last as long as it did because of back issues, and finished the play. It was a 29-yard completion that set up an easy go-ahead score for Michel, giving the Patriots a 10-3 lead. "I just knew it was going to come to me," Gronkowski said. "I just understand how we work as an offense, understand the play-calling. We've been together for how many years now? Tom and I, McDaniels and I. Everyone. I knew it was going to come to me, and I knew I had to make that play." What looks like it'll be Gronkowski's last catch of his career ended up being the most important he's ever made -- a Super Bowl-winner. If there's such a thing as going out on top, that was it.