When tight end Rob Gronkowski was preparing to play his final game with the New England Patriots — a 13-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII — he was asked about the favorite catches of his career.
He paused briefly before sharing insight on what he valued most in a reception.
“I like the one-handers. I remember all the one-handers — those are always memorable,” he said.
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“It’s tough to make one-handers. 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.”
That’s why Gronkowski highlighted a Week 16 touchdown catch against the Buffalo Bills in the 2017 season, and a 10-yard grab against the Denver Broncos in the divisional round of the playoffs following the 2011 season as two of his most memorable.
So when putting together a list of Gronkowski’s greatest grabs, degree of difficulty is naturally a top consideration.
Clutch catches are a big part of it too.
Gronkowski’s 29-yard diving reception in Super Bowl LIII — with Rams linebacker Cory Littleton on his back hip and quarterback Tom Brady delivering a perfect ball — set up the Patriots’ only touchdown of the game.
Then, in the Buccaneers’ 31-9 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV, Gronkowski hauled in two touchdown receptions (8 and 17 yards), although they didn’t fall into the category of other jaw-dropping catches over his career.
Brady, during his Patriots days with Gronkowski, had often noted how the future Hall of Famer “just shows up at the biggest moments.” It’s why Brady had rated Gronkowski’s work in Super Bowl XLIX among his favorite.
“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,” Brady had recalled.
“I’ve thrown a lot to him over the years. He’s been so dependable, consistent.”
Then there’s what Gronkowski does after the catch that also warrants consideration among his best work, with defenders often bouncing off him, or hanging on as he lunges forward with force.
A 44-yarder in a 46-23 win over the Carolina Panthers on Nov. 15, 2020, fits well into that category — Gronkowski twisting to make the initial tight-window grab and then having safety Jeremy Chinn bounce off him as he raced for an additional 16 yards after the catch.
It was a great play, but does it even rank among the top 10 of Gronkowski’s all-time best?
Editor’s note: Gronkowski announced his retirement from the NFL for the second time on Tuesday. This story is updated from the original that published on Jan. 30, 2019.
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, could make.
5. Feb. 3, 2019 – Patriots 13, Rams 3: The 29-yarder down the left seam to set up the only touchdown of the game — made all the more impressive considering Gronkowski was playing through significant pain that he later cited when announcing his initial retirement.
6. 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.”
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. Dec. 11, 2011 — Patriots 34, Commanders 27: An unforgettable play that highlighted his athleticism, Gronkowski stayed on his feet along the sideline despite the presence of multiple Commanders defenders whom he shrugged off for a 50-yard gain.
10. Oct. 4, 2020 — Buccaneers 38, Chargers 31: A 29-yard catch with linebacker Kyzir White all over him — which was essentially a 50-50 ball — and Gronkowski still came down with it. It was a classic example of how Gronkowski was often open even though he was tightly covered — a staple of his career.
11. 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.
12. 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.
13. Dec. 26, 2020 — Buccaneers 47, Lions 7: A 33-yard touchdown catch with safety Tracy Walker III running stride for stride down the right sideline with Gronkowski … only to have Gronkowski outstretch his arms at the last moment to snatch it out of the air “Inspector Gadget” style. Walker could only clap his hands in frustration.
14. Nov. 15, 2020 — Buccaneers 46, Panthers 23: He was tightly covered by Chinn, one of the top players from the 2020 draft class, and not only made the contested catch but then had Chinn bounce off him, which allowed him to race an additional 16 yards on a 44-yard gain.
15. 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.
16. Oct. 18, 2020 — Buccaneers 38, Packers 10: Gronkowski’s back-shoulder touchdown catch on a high-arcing ball from Brady was made to look routine, but he still had to adjust his body and keep his feet in bounds along the left sideline. A reflection of Gronkowski’s ballerina-type feet.
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.”