Gronk wins again: Retirement at 29 as the best TE ever (check these stats)? Let the afterparty begin

PHOENIX – Forget about the pratfalls. Disregard the juvenile antics, the pubescent obsession with one particular number and the grunting and the frat boy stuff. Pay no attention, if you will, to anything he may have said when the microphones or cameras were around.

None of it matters.

When it comes to Rob Gronkowski, simply scan the box scores and crunch the numbers and watch those playoff and Super Bowl highlights and, then, if you are truly inclined to behold the depths of his greatness, seek out the game film that rarely shows up on television and watch the man utterly destroy people blocking in the run game. If anything, GRONK, the cartoonish, boyish, pop-culture phenomenon, obscured some of the actual on-field prowess of arguably the greatest tight end in the history of the game.

Sure, he didn't play a decade. Of course, he lost so much of his prime to a vicious succession of injuries. This was not the traditional, linear, Hall of Fame path. But those repeated medical setbacks made it all the more improbable each time he came back only to Gronk some more, smashing overmatched defensive backs and sending balls trampolining to the sky with his monster spikes after yet another touchdown. 

Simply consider, at any given moment, in any weekend snapshot of any NFL season, how often one could truly make an argument that on that given Sunday, the greatest to ever play his position was on the field. It is a remarkably small number, in actuality. Last season, you could make that argument for Gronk's football sensei – Tom Brady – of course, but how many others? Take out quarterbacks, and the number seems to shrink even more. Which explains why Gronk's retirement – even though it was not unexpected at all to those in the know – stole the thunder at the start of the NFL's league meetings here at the Biltmore hotel.

Even in his limited sample size (parts of nine seasons, in totality), it is impossible to assess Gronk's career and not determine that he is most definitely in the conversation for the greatest tight end to ever perform in the NFL. He combines the hulling presence of John Mackie – dwarfing defenders on snap after snap – and the physical prowess of Mark Bavaro with the downfield, big play dominance of a lithe wide receiver line Lynn Swann. He was even more complete than Kellen Winslow. 

Far too often these days we opine that this guy or that guy transcended the game or changed the way we thought it could be played. Gronk clearly did. And he did it in a flash and not over a slow and steady grind. There is no padding of his stats. No years spent losing a battle to Father Time, yet still compiling precious stats all the while that will look even better once that bust is up in Canton. This is all killer, no filler. It was real, and it was spectacular. Gronk Gronked like no other tight end ever has before, and it might be quite some time before we see anything like this again.

For Gronk, the genius isn't in what he accomplished on the cumulative level; it's what he averaged in terms of output and impact and production in each of the 131 combined regular-season and playoff games he appeared in. His 602 combined receptions in the regular season and playoffs ranks just ninth all-time, but that doesn't tell the story.

Gronk averaged, for his career, 15 yards per catch. Tony Gonzalez, the all-time leader among tight ends in most every category, averaged 11.4. Winslow averaged 12.5 yards per catch in a dynamic offense with myriad deep threats; recall that save for a flicker of time with Randy Moss, Gronk was the primary deep threat among all of his other chores. Shannon Sharpe is in this conversation (12.4 yards per catch and 66 TDs) and he too was a physical force, but it would be hard to proclaim he was better. In receptions per game, Gronk (4.8) is right there with Winslow (5) and Gonzalez (4.9). Gronk has 84 gains of 25 yards or more; only Gates has more (90). But, again, Gates has appeared in 121 more regular-season games. Gonzalez appeared in 155 more!

In his seven "full seasons" – i.e. seasons in which he started at least 10 games – Gronk averaged 65 catches for 981 yards and 10 touchdowns. And that includes a 2018 when he was hobbled badly more than half the season and a rookie season in which he was just working into the offense coming off multiple injuries in college.

Gronk averaged 69 yards per game in his career (his lucky number); Winslow is the only other tight end over 60 yards (62), while Gonzalez (55.6) and Antonio Gates (49.9) are well off that pace. Gronk will never catch Antonio Gates, who leads all tight ends with 118 touchdowns (regular season and playoffs). But Gronk produced 91 of them on 925 career targets (1 on every 10.16 targets); Gates (1,529 targets) comes in at 1 TD every 12.95 targets and Gonzalez (2,061 targets) scored once every 17.92 targets. From this metric, it isn't even close.

And Gronk was certainly at his best when it mattered most.

He is the all-time leader among tight ends in postseason targets (130 – the next highest, Sharpe, has 101), receptions (84 – the next highest, Dallas Clark, has 64), yards (1163 – the next highest, Clark, has 847), touchdowns (12– the next highest, Dave Casper and Vernon Davis, are tied with 7), yards per game (72.7), and plays over 25 yards (12).    

Gronk played in precisely 16 postseason games – the equivalent of a regular season – and caught 81 balls for 1,163 yards and 12 TDs. Against the best of the best. That is greatness. He had 80 yards or more in half of those 16 playoff games, and 10 targets or more in six of them. New England went 12-4 in the postseason when Gronk was available and he played in four Super Bowls and had he been in available in the 2013 postseason, there may have been one more.

Even at the end of his career, in what appeared to be something of a personally lost season in 2018 as he spent the first few months trying to find any hint of explosiveness, fighting pain to try to get on the field, and then stay on the field, he was larger than life. Those massive arm pads, the gladiator look to his game was still there, and, always resilient, there would be that final act where he came alive to lead a playoff push and helped cement yet another Lombardi Trophy for New England.

And now he goes away on his terms. At his time. On top, if not quite at the top of his game. Because the reality for Gronk, after the back and knee and arm injuries, was that this was as good as it was going to get. Medical science alone would dictate that this had to be diminishing returns at some point. We can easily dismiss or ignore the grueling pain and anguish that comes with another nine-month recovery from surgery or yet another rehab and learning to walk and run and leap and merely bend over normally again (When does Gronk come back this time?). But for the man himself, this is his life and that was his pain and while a certain level of discomfort will likely accompany many of his days from here on out, the idea of being a slowing, 6-foot-6, 270-pound target going out over the middle for pass after pass was losing its allure.

Crack on Gronk's "simple man" approach all you want, but the man made a highly educated and thoughtful decision in this instance. He's saved his money and built his brand and crossed over beyond sports, and now, roughly two months short of his 30th birthday, he can truly start to savor his spoils. Any hunch who will be the life of that party?

CBS Sports Insider

Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday... Full Bio

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