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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Why the New York Jets deserve the controversy, dysfunction surrounding them

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1. I think the Jets architecture job is not the one to take if you want to run a franchise, Peyton Manning. To be charitable, the Jets are not close to contention.

2. I think I won’t be the first to use this rationale for my opinion about what happened when Mike Maccagnan got dismissed the other day as Jets GM, but it’s the first thing that occurred to me: The Jets truly deserve this controversy. A few points:

• I have no sympathy for Maccagnan, who lorded over a 14-35 team since New Year’s Day 2016. Only Cleveland and San Francisco have won fewer games since then. But by my math, Maccagnan just spent $235 million in free agency this offseason, a gargantuan sum. He just had the keys to the draft and, apparently with minimal input from the head coach, made Quinnen Williams the third overall pick in the draft. He was fired 19 days after the draft. What owner in his right mind allows a GM he figures he may well fire run a crucial off-season? Christopher Johnson, that’s who.

• Adam Gase is going to have a major say on who becomes the next GM of the Jets. Gase was 23-26 in his three-year stint coaching the Dolphins, and, though the quarterback position was plagued by injuries while he was there, he’s supposed to be a quarterback guru, and the Dolphins, again, are starting from scratch at the position after firing Gase four-and-a-half months ago. I like Gase well enough. But what exactly has he done, first, to earn a head-coaching job after his three years in Miami … and, second, to play a significant role in picking the architect of the new Jets?

• I assume the reports of Gase not wanting Le’Veon Bell for $13.5 million a year are true. (I don’t blame him.) But the leaks in that building are never-ending, and in this case, the leaks could drive a wedge between a guy who doesn’t seem very happy to be a Jet in the first place, Bell, and the guy who’s going to be calling his number this fall. Gase better figure a way to tamp that down. I don’t know if he can.

• How do you have faith in the Jets to get this GM thing right now? And what smart GM-candidate type (Joe Douglas or Louis Riddick or Daniel Jeremiah) would want to take his one shot—because most GMs get one shot at running a team—working for Christopher Johnson?

• If I were Mike Greenberg, I’d be burying my head in my hands this morning, wondering why oh why did I get stuck loving this franchise? How can season-ticket-holders send in their money this year thinking they’re going to see the turnaround season of a team that’s won 5, 5, and 4 games the past three years?

• Sam Darnold doesn’t coach.

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The lessons Chris Long learned from playing with Patriots, Eagles, Rams

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Chris Long, who retired over the weekend after an 11-year NFL career that ended with two Super Bowl rings (in 2016 with New England and 2017 with Philadelphia), and an NFL Man of the Year Award (in 2018) for his work in U.S. social justice and building fresh-water wells for thousands in Africa, on the lessons he takes with him into retirement:

“I learned to never make a decision based on just one thing. The decision to retire was complicated. It was based on health, which is still very good, and family, we have two small children, and football fit, which includes a chance to win and my role and geography. Philadelphia is where I wanted to play a couple more years. I love Philadelphia. But as a player I learned the most important thing to me is Sunday, and having a chance to be a big part of it. It seemed like player-coach was kind of the role that was going to be carved out for me—maybe playing 10, 12, 15 plays a game. I’m a rhythm player. I need to set people up, I need to be in the flow of the game. If I sit on the bench for three series, I can’t get rhythm, and I’ll get cold and maybe I’ll hurt myself. Some people think that’s great—play less and you won’t get hurt. Man, I want to play ball. In Philadelphia, it didn’t seem there was much of a chance to compete there. But they were honest with me the whole time. I appreciate the honesty. I’ll always love Philadelphia and the Eagles, but I didn’t want Week 4, 5, to come around and people think, Whoa, where’s Chris? Did Chris retire? I’d rather do it this way than just fade out. And I didn’t want to start over again across the country somewhere.

“I learned so much in my career. Getting drafted second overall, and going to St. Louis, and the fact that we were losing, I just thought, I am not gonna fold. I am not a loser. I am gonna be a bright spot. I am gonna give these fans, who I deeply appreciate for their dedication, the respect they deserve . Anyone playing in that era in St. Louis knows how bad it was at times. It was carnage, in so many ways. It was a test of my will. Do I get irritated by the no-Pro Bowl thing, never making a Pro Bowl? Yeah, I do. Fifty sacks in the first six years, with no one watching, on a bad team. I just felt the narrative should be, That kid panned out. But that’s okay—it was a labor of love. I have zero regrets.

“In New England, I learned so much about football. I always thought I was a smart player, even though I never thought about anything but the six inches in front of my face. In New England, I was forced to learn so many schematic concepts. In my career playing football, nobody asked me to do as much as Bill Belichick did. I might be 3-technique, or a linebacker, or a linebacker dropping into coverage more than ever, or playing inside more than ever. I’ll always remember how much I learned watching Bill in practice. He can coach any position as good as any position coach in league. He can walk around the field and stop drills and coach each position—at the highest level. And the quality of the dudes. Solid men. The right kind of people.

“Tom Brady blew me away. Who’s the most famous athlete of our generation: Tom Brady? LeBron? Messi? Ronaldo? Serena Williams? Maybe I haven’t been around enough to know how the biggest stars really act. But Brady is a normal guy. When I got there, here comes Tom. ‘Hey Chris, I’m Tom, nice to meet you.’ Well, yeah, I know you’re Tom. A lot of people want to hate him for all the success, and I understand how you can dislike the Patriots, but I cannot understand how you can dislike Tom.

“That Super Bowl against Atlanta … when we were way behind, I’m thinking, ‘I waited my whole life to be here, and this is a nightmare. This is the worst nightmare I have ever had.’ If we lost that night, I very possibly would have retired a bitter man. But winning it breathed life into me.

“Going to Philadelphia, I felt I found a home. Best sports city in America. But how different my situation was. I went from team captain with the Rams two years before that to winning the Super Bowl in New England to starting on the bottom in Philly. I was an average Joe. I was challenged. I learned how much being a team, being together, really means. We were a case study for whatever you believe. Either we were an anomaly or we proved you could do good things and win in pro sports. We happened to have guys who were good players who cared. I remember winning a Monday Night Football game, falling asleep at 4 or 5 o’clock, and waking up for a train to Harrisburg to work with state legislators on policies. It just showed how much we could make changes in things that matter, and play really good football too. You can be a football player and a citizen. It’s gratifying when young players come up and say they’re inspired to do more because of things that Malcolm Jenkins or Torrey Smith have done, or me.

“I’ve always tried to be me first and a football player second. When I came into football, I didn’t want to be this piece of wreckage who couldn’t move or have a normal life. But I learned you can’t predict the future. I thought I’d play eight years. I thought I’d retire at 30. But I played 11, and now I’m 34.

“NFL Man of the Year … I never felt deserving of it. I am not the best person in the NFL. I never want to get up there promoting myself as some infallible person. I was very honored. But I was also conflicted that people saw me as this community service guy, not a player. Nobody saw me as the player I was in my prime. I don’t want to be known as Community Service Guy; I want to be known as a guy who busted his ass for 11 years at his craft. But I do appreciate the fact that people saw that I played for free for one year, that I was part of a group that built 61 wells for people to get fresh water in Africa, and that we’ve got 220,000 people drinking from our wells. I will not downplay that stuff. But I am not some angel, believe me. I don’t have a brand. My brand is me.

“Retirement is interesting. It is something I feared for a long time. It is an existential crisis. I’ve been doing something since high school, working toward a goal. I fantasize about crossing the threshold, but at the same time it’s something you can be deathly afraid of.

“I am excited about the next phase of life. I’m launching a digital media company. I will have my own pod. I’m just excited about being able to control the narrative. I like to create. Maybe I’ll work at a network. Whatever I do, I’ll be me.”

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