ATLANTA — Leave it to Rob Gronkowski to give the Patriots another reason to party. All it took was a little blast from the past; a catch few tight ends could make on a throw few quarterbacks could make.
Less than two months after earning his third ring in New England’s win over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl 53, Gronkowski, 29, chose to retire. He is doing so on the heels of the most clutch catch of his Hall of Fame career.
Gronkowski’s six catches for 87 yards (to match a jersey number no Patriot likely will wear again) in the Super Bowl was the result of the Rams not being able to cover the 6-6, 268-pound tight end they way they wanted with big cornerback Aqib Talib or physical safety John Johnson. The game did not feature a Gronk performance to remember, however, until the Patriots’ lone touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter, a possession that lasted five plays and went 69 yards (to match a joke no Patriot likely will make again).
The penultimate play, before running back Sony Michel barreled into the end zone from two yards out, is what will provide the exclamation point to Gronk’s career.
“I knew the ball was coming,” Gronkowski said. “I saw the coverage.”
The Patriots went five wide with several key wrinkles. As he was on the previous two plays, Julian Edelman was the only wide receiver on the field. Fullback James Deveiln lined up wide right, with second tight end Dwayne Allen in the slot to that side. Before the snap, Edelman went into motion in front of Tom Brady and lined up closest to the QB on the right. Gronkowski was off-line in the slot, to the left, with running back Rex Burkhead lined up wide left.
Edelman did the initial damage when he got inside linebacker Cory Littleton to move and temporarily leave his responsibility on Gronkowski.
“We were moving. We had players scattered all over the field, and they capitalized (on) our mistakes,” Littleton said. “A person lined up on the left, I was on the right, I went to the left and had to go back to the right. We lined up wrong.
“If we were lined up correctly I feel like we would have had a different outcome. Can’t complain. It happens.”
Added Gronkowski: “I’m pretty sure it was two plays before when I wound up in the same spot. (Offensive coordinator Josh) McDaniels saw it, and I saw the same coverage, same play call. I just understand how we work as an offense — Tom and I, McDaniels and I, everyone. I knew it was coming to me, and I knew I had to make that play.”
The next key element was Burkhead. Develin’s size at 6-3, 255 pounds coerced the Rams to put Talib (6-1, 209 pounds) on the fullback. Because neither Talib nor Marcus Peters cover the slot, the situation was more appropriate for the Rams to put Peters (6-0, 195 pounds) on Burkhead (5-10, 215 pounds).
The Rams bit on the decoy that was Develin lined up outside. With that, plus the more hybrid wideout presence of Burkhead, the Patriots took their opponents’ starting cornerbacks out of the play.
So when Littleton was left scrambling to get back in position on Gronkowski, Peters got caught up in the confusion and was late to help downfield — just as the Patriots had hoped.
“I was just running a little hitch route outside where I was trying to occupy Peters,” Burkhead said. “I saw him fall off there, so I was hoping he wasn’t getting to Gronk.”
The final element was New England’s five offensive linemen being able to give Brady enough protection on an obvious pass play. Rams all-world defensive tackle Aaron Donald beat his one-on-one matchup, left guard Joe Thuney, but did not have enough time to disrupt Brady.
“I got off my one-on-one clean,” Donald said. “(Brady) was sitting back there and had time to make a good pass.”
Added Rams defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., who lined up between Gronkowski and left tackle Trent Brown as a fifth defensive lineman but was ridden out of the play: “They had one big explosive play. I was just rushing the passer, and I just see Gronk beat him.”
Brady, facing a second-and-3 at the Rams’ 31-yard line and trying to penetrate the red zone for the first time in the game with 7:36 left, dropped a perfect ball deep left into the hands of a diving Gronk. Even while going to the ground, Gronkowski’s big frame easily cleared the futile coverage of Littleton.
The only thing that could have made the 29-yard catch more memorable was a touchdown; Gronk was ruled down at the 2-yard line. But it still served as the breakthrough play in what had been a frustrating battle of attrition.
Burkhead at first thought Gronkowski had rolled in and scored. Expecting Brady and Gronkowski to finish drives on big plays has been the routine in New England. There seemed to be a sense from Gronk’s teammates that they needed to appreciate this catch a little more than the rest, just in case it’s the last.
“How physical Gronk is, how big he is and his ability to play fast, he’s second to none,” Burkhead said.
For all the praise Gronkowski gets for his physical attributes, which were on full display, the play also was a reminder of how much his football experience and intelligence are often underappreciated because of his … Gronkness. Then there’s the chemistry with his QB, which takes his game to another level.
“Tom threw it to me, and I just come through whenever he needs.” Gronkowski said. “He knows to trust in me and throw that ball, and I’m going to go grab it.”
That sounds simple. But the Patriots, as they often do, schemed to put Gronkowski in a great position to beat the defense.
Bill Belichick gave away just how important he thought the play was — the coach mentioned it twice when asked to recall the highlights of McDaniels’ game plan full of diverse personnel looks. Armed with the versatility and size of their offensive skill players, they used the necessary attention paid to Edelman, who would be named Super Bowl MVP, to get more out of Gronkowski.
And although Edelman was named the game’s most valuable player, New England would not be celebrating had Gronkowski not come up with the game’s most valuable play.
Brady-to-Gronkowski is now right up there with Joe Montana-to-Jerry Rice as a classic, unparalleled combination when it comes to how everyone is measured most in the NFL: winning Super Bowls. Montana and Rice, though, won just two titles together. The win over the Rams marked three Super Bowl wins for Brady and Gronkowski in five trips.
Brady did not talk to reporters for long after the game, but perhaps knowing the moment might present his last chance to gush about playing with Gronkowski, the 41-year-old took it.
“Incredible catch,” Brady said. “He’s an awesome player, great teammate, friend, and I’m just so proud of everything he’s done for our team. He just had an incredible game.”
The catch that all but won New England it’s record-tying sixth Super Bowl was Gronkowski’s last. He found a way to add to his lasting impression as an indispensable part of the Patriots’ dynasty.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated from its original version to account for Gronkowski’s retirement.
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