Rob Gronkowski’s retirement leaves New England Patriots in tough spot

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Some connected with the Patriots felt strongly early last week that Gronkowski was likely to retire, and it chagrins the organization that the free-agent receiver/tight end crop is now totally denuded after established tight end Jared Cook—who I am told will not reconsider his decision—committed to signing with New Orleans last week. It’s no exaggeration to say the Patriots’ skill-position players, post-Gronk, might be the worst in the Belichick Era.

Agent Drew Rosenhaus’ version of the events, told to me late Sunday night here at the Biltmore: He said Bill Belichick reached out to Rosenhaus on Thursday to check about his tight end’s status. Rosenhaus called Gronkowski and said he should give the Patriots a decision soon. And on Sunday afternoon, before Rosenhaus flew from Fort Lauderdale to Phoenix, he said the 29-year-old Gronkowski called him to make the retirement official. “It was time,” Rosenhaus said.

Gronkowski’s words, via Rosenhaus: “It’s time. I just won another championship. I’m going out on top. I just want to do nothing for a while. I just want to be me. I just want to have fun.”

Gronkowski’s friend and Patriot backup, Dwayne Allen, told me Sunday night he was not surprised by the decision. “It was a day-to-day thing in the tight end room last year in New England,” Allen said. “He’d say, ‘This is it.’ And then, after being able to think about it in the offseason, he came to that same conclusion.”

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It all started at 20 years old on stage at the NFL draft when my dream came true, and now here I am about to turn 30 in a few months with a decision I feel is the biggest of my life so far. I will be retiring from the game of football today. I am so grateful for the opportunity that Mr. Kraft and Coach Belichick gave to me when drafting my silliness in 2010. My life experiences over the last 9 years have been amazing both on and off the field. The people I have meet, the relationships I have built, the championships I have been apart of, I just want to thank the whole New England Patriots organization for every opportunity I have been giving and learning the great values of life that I can apply to mine. Thank you to all of Pats Nation around the world for the incredible support since I have been apart of this 1st class organization. Thank you for everyone accepting who I am and the dedication I have put into my work to be the best player I could be. But now its time to move forward and move forward with a big smile knowing that the New England Patriots Organization, Pats Nation, and all my fans will be truly a big part of my heart for rest of my life. It was truly an incredible honor to play for such a great established organization and able to come in to continue and contribute to keep building success. To all my current and past teammates, thank you for making each team every year special to be apart of. I will truly miss you guys. Cheers to all who have been part of this journey, cheers to the past for the incredible memories, and a HUGE cheers to the uncertain of whats next.

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The Patriots are a lesser team today, obviously, because of Gronkowski’s retirement after nine starry seasons. But who can blame him, after three back surgeries, four arm surgeries, an ACL surgery, multiple concussions, and calf, quad and Achilles injuries? Gronkowski entered the NFL in 2010 with a pesky herniated disk condition, and in his 131 games since, he survived his physical maladies to be one of the best tight ends ever.

He blocked as well as any tight end of this generation—and unlike so many gifted offensive tight ends, he embraced blocking as part of his job. He caught the ball downfield as well as any tight end of this generation. The other three greats of this century, Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, averaged between 10.8 and 12.4 yards per reception. Gronkowski averaged 15.1, more than Jerry Rice (14.8) and Tyreek Hill (14.6).

More than anything, Gronkowski was there when his team needed him. This year, New England milked him through the middle part of the season, but he played all 169 offensive snaps in two tight games—the AFC title game (97) and the Super Bowl (72). On the 81st New England snap of the title game, Gronkowski beat Eric Berry for a 25-yard completion to set up the go-ahead touchdown in the final minute of the fourth quarter. On the 94th snap, and on perhaps the biggest third-down conversion of his career, Gronkowski beat Eric Berry for a 15-yard pass to set up the winning score in overtime. On the 60th offensive play of the Super Bowl, in a 3-3 duel with the Rams, he went 29 yards down the seam to catch a Tom Brady pass, setting up the winning touchdown.

As he told Rosenhaus: “I’m going out on top.”

That he certainly is. It’s the tight-end equivalent of Jim Brown retiring on the set of “The Dirty Dozen” in London in 1966, coming off an MVP season as the ’65 rushing champ for Cleveland. Gronkowski played his last game for New England at 29 years, 9 months. Brown played his last game for Cleveland at 29 years, 10 months.

Gronkowski’s decision is sepia-toned this morning, and the Patriots will sometime soon celebrate his nine-year contributions to one of the great teams ever to play the sport. He was well-liked and respected as a teammate, those inside the team say, because of his reliability, his toughness and his daily personality. Said Dwayne Allen: “Not only was he a great player against any defense—double teams, triple teams, chipped by defensive ends, covered by great corners—but he was one of the guys all the time. He was Rob with the media, Rob in the locker room, Rob on the field. And if he was hurt, or hurting, he never talked about it. And as a competitor, I haven’t met many like him. I was at his house once, playing basketball, and once, he just turned it on. He stepped behind the three-point line and started draining threes. Where’d that come from? That was just Rob.”

Yes, there will be cool Gronk stories. But in football terms for New England, reality bites. So much about him walking away is bad, bad news for the franchise.

It leaves the Patriots woefully short of offensive weapons as they try to remain the game’s dominant team. They do not have an established NFL tight end, and after free-agent Allen signed in Miami, the tight-end depth chart (Stephen Anderson, Mass LaCosse, Jacob HollisterRyan Izzo) is the worst in the NFL. Julian Edelman is coming off his Super Bowl MVP performance, but there is no veteran help for him beyond Chris Hogan, and there is no consistent deep threat on the roster other than the occasionally effective Phillip Dorsett. The running backs are fine—Sony Michel keys that group. But if Tom Brady takes the field at 42 with that group of receivers, good luck to him.

Lucky for the Patriots there are three legitimate first-round tight ends in this year’s draft. With six picks between 32 and 101, New England will be able to move around to position itself for a tight end and wide receiver early. But we’re assuming all picks hit, and that’s a bad assumption, even for the wise Patriots. More likely, a pre-draft trade (A.J. GreenMohamed SanuSterling Shepard?) using the Patriots’ draft capital wouldn’t surprise me.

Rosenhaus, 31 years an agent, was a bit melancholy Sunday night. “I’m in a daze,” he said, sitting by the huge lawn in the back of the Biltmore. “Representing Rob was so much fun, something special. Such a great guy, and always the same. Always up. You try as an agent to do everything you can for your clients, and I asked Rob if there was anything I could do for him, if there was anything I could ask the Patriots to make his job better. He said no, there’s really not anything. Then I asked his dad, ‘You sure he wants to give up $10 million this year?’ He told me, ‘Drew, he’s got all the money he needs.’ “

So that’s it … or is it? Rosenhaus said it wouldn’t shock him if Gronkowski decided to come back sometime in 2019. We’ll see. There’s nothing to indicate a return to football now. For now, there’s a void in New England, and in the NFL. A really fun player, a really good player, walked away with something left in the tank.

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