Editor's note: Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement from the NFL on Sunday. This piece was originally published on Jan. 30, 2019, prior to the New England Patriots playing the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII.
ATLANTA -- Rob Gronkowski has totaled 596 receptions in his career, which covers the regular season and playoffs, so which one is his favorite?
The New England Patriots tight end paused for a moment to give it some consideration.
“I like the one-handers. I remember all the one-handers -- those are always memorable,” he said, noting a Week 16 touchdown grab against the Buffalo Bills in the 2017 season and a 10-yard score against the Denver Broncos in the divisional round of the playoffs following the 2011 season.
“It’s tough to make one-handers," he said. "You’re always practicing two [hands] and you don’t want to make one-handers. But you only make them when it’s really necessary and you can only reach the ball. You remember those because it’s rare.”
Indeed, degree of difficulty is one criterion when putting together a list of Gronkowski’s greatest grabs.
So, too, are the clutch catches.
“He’s had so many big catches for us. He just shows up at the biggest moments,” quarterback Tom Brady said before picking one of his favorites, from Super Bowl XLIX. “In 2014, he catches the touchdown on [Seahawks linebacker] K.J. Wright. Then we beat him on a crossing route under pressure, but only Gronk makes that play with his length and speed. Then I threw him another, call it a deep stop route, on K.J. Wright again. So I’ve thrown a lot to him over the years. He’s been so dependable, consistent.”
Then there’s what Gronkowski, 29, does after the catch that also warrants consideration, with defenders sometimes bouncing off him, or hanging on as he lunges forward with force. Those catches often turn into memorable plays, too.
With this in mind, as well as the possibility that Sunday's Super Bowl against the Los Angeles Rams might be Gronk's final game, here are the 12 catches/plays from Gronkowski that stand out above the rest:
1. Nov. 2, 2014 -- Patriots 43, Broncos 21: A leaping, one-handed catch between multiple Broncos defenders in a victory at home. This play defied physics because Gronkowski’s momentum was heading in the opposite direction from where he caught the ball. The 20-yard grab came at the goal line with 14 minutes, 28 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, and Gronkowski just narrowly was ruled down before crossing the end zone. It was so close that Patriots coach Bill Belichick challenged the ruling. On the sideline, microphones picked up Brady approaching Gronkowski and saying, “How the f--- did you catch that?”
2. Jan. 14, 2012 -- Patriots 45, Broncos 10: One of Gronkowski’s favorites, he laid out in the back left-hand corner of the end zone and initially made contact with the ball with only his right hand before bringing his left hand in to secure it as he crashed to the ground for a 10-yard score to give the Patriots a 14-0 lead en route to a blowout win.
3. Nov. 16, 2014 -- Patriots 42, Colts 20: An uncommon mix of force and speed that makes Gronkowski so rare defined his 26-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Colts. He spun away from an initial would-be tackler, then picked up speed and raced past, and through, multiple defenders for the final touchdown in a 22-point win.
The incredible touchdown from Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski who makes a top 5 catch in the 2017 season pic.twitter.com/FIn8EFLYo4— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) December 24, 2017
4. Dec. 24, 2017 -- Patriots 37, Bills 16: This was one of Gronkowski’s all-time favorites -- a one-handed, 17-yard touchdown against the Bills in which he stretched his right hand out as safety Micah Hyde was draped all over him as they ran toward the left pylon. The ball was placed perfectly, and it was a catch that few, other than Gronkowski, make.
5. Aug. 26, 2010 -- Rams 36, Patriots 35: In his rookie season and playing in the preseason, Gronkowski caught a pass around the 5-yard line and dragged a Rams defender into the end zone from there as he hopped on one foot. In many ways, it was a preview of what was to come over the course of his career. Reflecting on it, Gronkowski didn’t rate it as highly because he was focusing more on the actual catch, saying: “I remember it. It was a good play, but it was a normal catch still.”
6. Nov. 18, 2013 -- Panthers 24, Patriots 20: Gronkowski beat press coverage against the Panthers and then dragged three defenders into the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown in a back-and-forth classic on Monday Night Football. Just pure will.
7. Nov. 21, 2011 -- Patriots 34, Chiefs 3: A 19-yard catch-and-run touchdown against the Chiefs in which he finished with a half-flip that landed him on his back in the end zone. He simply wouldn't be denied.
8. Dec. 11, 2011 -- Patriots 34, Redskins 27: An unforgettable play that highlighted his athleticism, Gronkowski stayed on his feet along the sideline despite the presence of multiple Redskins defenders whom he shrugged off for a 50-yard gain.
9. Jan. 24, 2016 -- Broncos 20, Patriots 18: Two plays that fall into the “clutch situation” category came in the AFC Championship Game at Denver, with Gronkowski snatching a 40-yard rainbow from Brady down the right seam during a spirited final touchdown drive that culminated with him splitting double coverage to come back for a 4-yard score to close the gap to 20-18.
10. Feb. 1, 2015 -- Patriots 28, Seahawks 24: One of Brady’s favorites, as Gronkowski got a step up the right sideline on Wright in the Super Bowl and reached his big hands up in the end zone to haul it in for a 22-yard touchdown.
11. Nov. 16, 2014-- Patriots 42, Colts 20: It isn’t a catch, but any list of Gronkowski’s greatest plays would be incomplete without a play that reflects his relentless blocking; on this day, he threw Colts defensive back Sergio Brown “out of the club” with force.
12. Oct. 26, 2014 -- Patriots 51, Bears 23: His 46-yard touchdown against the Bears showcased his powerful stiff-arm, as he blasted a defensive back and then outran everyone else to the end zone.
Summing up Gronkowski’s body of work, Brady was effusive in his praise.
“He takes a lot of pride in what he does and takes it very seriously. We ask him to do a lot of things,” Brady said. “I think it’s impressive to be 270 pounds, to play basically every play, to win every matchup in the run game against 300-pound defensive ends, 240-pound defensive ends. We ask him to pass block. Then we ask him to run routes and win against linebackers, win against safeties, sometimes win against corners. He’s a physical freak.
“For him to excel the way he has, I think him and Tony Gonzalez are the two greatest tight ends to ever play the game.”