Picture this: It’s April 23, 2010, the self-declared single greatest night of Rob Gronkowski’s life (to that point), and the second night of that spring’s NFL Draft. After missing his junior season at Arizona with a back injury, there’s finally a team that sees enough reward through the obvious risk, and decides to make him part of their mix.
The commissioner calls his name as the 42nd pick, and after posing for a few pictures he reconvenes the party on the side of the stage for some Gronk family shenanigans. As all the goofiness crescendos, he’s bobbing his head inside a proudly worn silver helmet adorned with the logo of his new squad.
And it’s the logo of the Oakland Raiders.
It’s a picture painted by reality — except for the last part, of course. The Raiders didn’t draft Gronkowski. Instead, they traded the 42nd pick that year to New England, moving down two spots to add a sixth-round pick, and giving the Patriots a chance to select arguably the greatest tight end of his generation.
That’s a claim Gronkowski can make after scoring 92 touchdowns, earning All-Pro honors four times, and winning three Super Bowls so quickly that he wasn’t yet 30 when he retired in March via social media.
For most of the time since then, the prevailing question about Gronkowski has centered around if and when he might return to the Pats. He had until Nov. 30 to come back in 2019, and the question persisted straight through that deadline in part because of how much the Patriots’ offense has struggled without him.
Over time it has seemed to get worse, in fact, and amid that decline a new question may have gained some legitimacy in just 13 games:
How different might Tom Brady’s legacy — and some significant parts of NFL history — look if Gronkowski had not landed with the Patriots back in 2010?
The brilliance of Gronk was always that he could impact all aspects of an offense. His combination of size, speed, and body control made him a matchup nightmare in the passing game, and what separated him from the other tight ends whose production approached receiver levels was that he doubled as a devastating blocker in the run game.
His presence enabled an offense to operate with the functional balance that the current Patriots sorely lack. It’s not difficult to see how things fall apart. New England can’t establish a running game that’s consistent enough to command respect, so opposing defenses can focus on the pass, are fearless in coming after Brady because the line struggles to protect him, and know that aside from Julian Edelman there’s no go-to guy for the quarterback to throw to.
A lot of that is influenced by the line play, which appears to have been worse than it’s been in years. Yes, there have been injuries among that group, but Pats fans have grown accustomed to seeing a mish-mashed collection fill those spots — and do so capably under the master command of coach Dante Scarnecchia.
But in the fervor and frustration of watching Brady throwing balls away in the face of a blitz, or watching Sony Michel get met by a wall at the line of scrimmage, maybe the impact of missing Gronk as the sixth member of that unit has been underplayed. Maybe it’s been already forgotten that last year’s divisional round win over the Chargers, when the Patriots scored 41 points and netted 498 yards of offense, might’ve been one of Gronkowski’s best games in his final season. He was the target of just one pass, despite playing 77 of 83 snaps.
A significant part of Gronkowski’s impact last postseason came as a blocker — but that may get forgotten because of what he produced as a receiver in some of that title march’s biggest moments. In the AFC Championship, his third-down gain of 25 yards set up a go-ahead touchdown in the final minute of regulation, then he got 15 on third and 10 to bring the ball into the red zone during the winning drive of overtime. In the Super Bowl, in a 3-3 game, he set up the game’s only touchdown with catches of 18 and 29 yards in a span of five fourth-quarter plays.
Those were (at least for now) the last two passes Gronkowski caught from Brady, and a fitting way to finish his career. They reflected that for the better part of nine seasons, the tight end gave the offense whatever it needed. When Brady needed a big play, he could throw it to the big guy. Or Gronkowski would draw attention away from others. Or he could stay in to help on the edge, to give the quarterback a bit more time.
Without that this season, it’s not surprising to see the Patriots entering Week 15 ranked 17th league-wide in third-down conversion rate, and 27th in turning red zone trips into touchdowns. It’s in those got-to-have-it, game-turning spots that the Pats miss Gronkowski the most. And it’s where the question of how different the last decade might’ve been without him really becomes interesting.
Statistically speaking, since Brady returned from ACL reconstruction in 2009, the season most similar to this one is 2013. That year, his completion percentage finished at 60.5 percent. That’s exactly where it sits as the Patriots go to Cincinnati. He threw 25 touchdown passes, his fewest since 2006; this year he’s on pace for 23. He threw for 4,343 yards then, and projects to 4,230 now. As a team, the efficiency was similar to this year, too, converting 37.6 percent of third downs. This year it’s 37.4 percent.
What’s significant about 2013 is that’s the year Gronkowski spent the offseason dealing with an arm infection, then missed the first six weeks following back surgery, then prematurely ended his season with tears of the ACL and MCL in his right knee. He was limited to seven games, and in only five of them was he on the field for more than half of New England’s offensive snaps.
What’s also interesting about the timing of that season is that it was during the subsequent draft that the Patriots selected Jimmy Garoppolo, spending a second-round pick to take a shot at securing Brady’s successor. At that time it had also been nine years since the franchise had lifted the Lombardi Trophy, with the tandem of Brady and Bill Belichick stuck at three Super Bowl titles.
The conversation about who was the greatest quarterback of all time was hardly the near-consensus it is now, and, actually, when Peyton Manning beat Brady in the AFC Championship that season it stoked the doubters who were debating which of the two was the best of his own generation.
We all know what’s happened since to silence that speculation. Brady’s late-career renaissance has rendered three more championships, and with those riches he’s separated himself from Manning, Joe Montana, and all the others. He’s now talked about as maybe the greatest team sports athlete in American history, and in conjunction the Patriots are mentioned as maybe modern sport’s best dynasty.
Even if they kept winning the AFC East, and Brady continued to play well enough to keep his job into his 40s, that historical elevation doesn’t happen without these three most recent Super Bowl titles. And for as great as Brady and Belichick may be, those three championships may not happen had another GOAT, Gronkowski, not been infused at the perfect time.
Take it back even beyond 2013. Just before the tight end arrived, the Pats had been blown out in a playoff game, at home, by the Ravens. In Gronk’s first season, Randy Moss became a shipped-out malcontent before that season ended with another one-and-done home playoff defeat.
The next few years felt like a transitional phase of sorts, with Belichick even referencing Brady’s age and contract status when selecting Garoppolo, and with the annual playoff failures surfacing concerns for some that maybe the window had closed on this run as contenders. But then Gronkowski returned with the best season of his career in 2014.
The Patriots won the Super Bowl, and suddenly 2013 — his year without Gronk — came to stick out as an aberration for Brady. The Pats stuck with their quarterback, sent Garoppolo to San Francisco, and won a couple more titles before the tight end rode off into the multimedia spotlight.
The team he left behind does not, at this point at least, look capable of winning another this season. It appears headed for the same fate as that 2013 team, which saw Brady throwing to guys he didn’t fully trust and the offense failing when faced with a good team come playoff time. It will be disappointing for Patriots fans, especially if this does really turn out to be the end of this era.
Ultimately, though, it looks like they might’ve delayed the inevitable decline by a whole decade largely by drafting the goofy guy gyrating on stage in the Patriots helmet almost 10 years ago.