In January of 2012, with under a minute to play in the third quarter of the AFC Championship Game, the New England Patriots were trailing the Baltimore Ravens by four points. On the very first play of the drive Tom Brady hit tight end Rob Gronkowski with a 23-yard pass.
Then-Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard rushed over to make a tackle from the side. Pollard slid down Gronkowski's body but would not lose grip of his legs. Upon falling, Gronkowski’s ankle found its way underneath Pollard and bent completely to the side. Gronkowski limped off to the sidelines and would not catch another pass that day.
The Patriots found a way to win the game, but the problems had just begun for—what appeared to be—the team’s best receiving weapon for years to come.
Gronkowski would go on to play in Super Bowl XLVI two weeks later against the New York Giants but was a shell of himself as he occasionally limped around the field. The game even ended on a Hail Mary pass attempt from Tom Brady. The pass was tipped and Gronkowski was the last player to make a play on the ball.
He couldn’t quite get there.
Gronkowski had only two receptions for 26 yards in that Super Bowl. Considering that he combined for 15 catches, 230 yards and three touchdowns in the two previous playoff games, it was safe to say that he was not the same. The big, reliable “Gronk” was no longer that same person, and he would not be that player again.
Following his 2011 season, which consisted of 90 receptions, over 1,300 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns, he has averaged nine games played per year, with his statistical averages dropping to 691 receiving yards and 7.5 touchdowns per season.
These numbers tell us two things. First, Gronkowski, when healthy, is still very productive. Second, and more importantly, Gronkowski has not been able to stay healthy. Most importantly, Gronkowski has not played in a playoff game since the aforementioned Super Bowl.
With reoccurring injuries there comes a time when a team needs to ask itself when enough is enough, and it is time to move on. A player of Gronkowski’s caliber costs a lot of cap space, and the New England Patriots may be better suited spending that money on players who will actually be play.
In 2012, Gronkowski signed an eight-year, $55.23 million contract with an $8 million signing bonus and $13.17 million in guaranteed money.
There are a lot of important details to the contract that will affect if or when the Patriots could part ways with Gronkowski. I reached out to former sports agent and NFL contracts and salary-cap expert Joel Corry to get a better understanding of the contract and how the Patriots could part ways with their star tight end. Here is the lowdown:
Gronkowski's $4.75M '15 base salary was guaranteed for injury at signing. It's fully guaranteed on the fifth day of the '15 waiver period (2/6/15). His '15 cap number is $8.65M. It includes $2M of proration for the option bonus that's deadline to exercise the last day of the '15 league year. If Gronk is cut before his '15 base salary is fully guaranteed, the Pats will have $3.2M in dead money w/him in '15. That's a $5.45M cap savings. The option bonus proration disappears because it was never exercised. If he plays for the Pats in '15 & the option isn't exercised, the Pats will get a $2M cap '15 because of the option bonus not being exercised. It would be offset by the $1.6M in '16 cap charge of signing bonus proration. The net cap credit would be $400k. Gronk can't be franchised/transitioned if the option years 2016-19 aren't picked up. He would be an unrestricted free agent in '16.
If Rob Gronkowski comes back significantly affected by his torn ACL that put him on injured reserve last season, or if he incurs a new injury and misses yet another postseason, the New England Patriots will have to take a serious look at their options before he costs the team over $8 million in 2015.
Gronkowski's talent makes this a difficult situation to analyze. He has the ability to become one of the best tight ends to ever play football, yet he has not been healthy during the team's biggest games for three seasons now.
This season marks the 10-year anniversary of the New England Patriots' last Super Bowl victory. If Gronkowski cannot help the team put an end to that streak, he may have to find a new franchise to play for as soon as next season.