If there was a point in the 2018 season where the watching NFL world genuinely believed the New England Patriots dynasty may be nearing its end, it was on December 9 in Miami, where they suffered one of the most unbelievable defeats in franchise history.
Central to that turn of events was Rob Gronkowski. Inexplicably left on the field to defend a potential Hail Mary pass with the Patriots defending a 33-28 lead with mere seconds left on the clock, the Patriots star tight end floundered in his unfamiliar role, allowing himself to be rounded by Miami running back Kenyan Drake after the Dolphins ran a series of laterals to score an unbelievable game-winner.
As he stumbled to the turf in a vain and unflattering attempt to bring Drake down, Gronkowski had never looked less impressive, less athletic and less like the phenomenal superstar who had long been regarded as the best player at his position.
His body clearly breaking down after numerous injuries, many viewed the 2018 season as likely his last act in the NFL. It remains to be seen whether that will prove to be the case but, if this campaign was indeed his finale, then Super Bowl LIII will go down as one hell of an encore.
With the Patriots relying much more heavily on the run game during their postseason push, Gronkowski has adapted to and excelled in the role of a de-facto blocking tight end.
However, he re-emerged as a prominent part of the passing game in the Patriots’ AFC Championship game win over the Kansas City Chiefs, making a key catch on their final scoring drive and in New England’s game-winning surge down the field in overtime.
And, when it mattered most on the grandest stage against a fearsome and in-form Los Angeles Rams defense, Gronkowski made the biggest offensive play of the game.
It was the kind of play that has come to define Gronkowski’s sure-to-be Hall of Fame career and is one of the most remarkable sights in the NFL, a 268lb man beating a linebacker down the field, perfectly tracking the ball over his head and making a stunning diving catch to put the Patriots in the red zone.
Sony Michel grabbed the glory by crashing into the end zone on the subsequent play and Tom Brady, along with game MVP Julian Edelman, naturally took most of the spotlight after winning a record sixth Super Bowl, but perhaps the defining moment belonged to Gronkowski, who was completely prepared for it.
“I knew it [the pass] was going to come to me. I just had a feeling,” Gronkowski told a media conference. “We ran the play like two plays before. Kind of beat the guy, had a little leverage. [Offensive coordinatorJosh] McDaniels saw it, repeated the play again. I knew it was going to come to me. Tom put it up there and went and made the play.
“When it comes to crunch time, I always find a way.”
Gronkowski found a way despite a quadriceps injury that he admitted left him struggling to walk after the game. He insisted he will leave any decision on his retirement for a few weeks, but it is those kind of post-game struggles that may convince him the time is right to hang up the cleats at 29.
After all, Gronkowski has nothing left to prove. He now has three championship rings, is viewed by many as the best tight end of all time, and may struggle to keep pace with a clutch of young tight ends looking to replicate his phenomenal achievements.
Zach Ertz broke the record for catches by a tight end in a single season this year, while Travis Kelce and George Kittle each surpassed Gronkowski’s mark for the most single-season receiving yards by a tight end.
With a host of young phenoms ready to take on the mantle and his body evidently in decline, the time is right to pass the torch, and, in making the pivotal play in the game that saw the Patriots tie the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most Super Bowl titles, he could not have picked a more spectacular way in which to do so.