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Rob Gronkowski’s dominance remains a sight to behold as the future Hall of Famer continues his unsung comeback from retirement – watch the Buffalo Bills @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers live on Sky Sports NFL from 9.25pm on Sunday evening
Last Updated: 10/12/21 3:24pm
Tom Brady is not the only former New England Patriot maximising his membership to the Tampa Bay time machine.
“He was just yapping to me the whole time, that’s why I took him and threw him out of the club.”
That was Rob Gronkowski in November 2014 after bulldozing safety Sergio Brown beyond the sideline and into a television camera during New England’s victory over the Indianapolis Colts. Seven years on, he is still tossing defenders out the club, still swatting away flailing arms as a pass-catching X Factor, still alternating between Batman and Robin with his age-defying quarterback.
The Gronk was done, his body was broken after years of willing punishment, he was hosting Miami beach parties on Super Bowl weekend, he was winning the WWE 24/7 Championship at WrestleMania 36. Football was over, beaten-down bones enjoying respite and infectious charisma inevitably thriving in the celebrity world.
He had hung up his cleats aged 29 in March 2019 after winning his third Super Bowl ring as a Patriot thanks to victory over the Los Angeles Rams, later citing not only physical deterioration but the draining impact injuries and football had been having on his mental health.
“Football was bringing me down, and I didn’t like it,” he said five months after retiring. “I was losing that joy in life. I could play right now if I wanted to play. I’m feeling good. Physically, I could do it. Mentally-wise, desire-wise, it’s not there.”
Only football was not over for him, not yet. His old pal Brady came calling, as did Bruce Arians, the Florida sun, and the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers.
It is the above quote that speaks to the magnitude of what he has since achieved as one of the NFL’s unsung comeback marvels, whose credentials as the greatest tight end to ever play the game are only continuing to grow. Most could not come back and do what he is doing. He is not like most.
The product of a retirement-turned-sabbatical has been a restored, recharged and unerringly-invested hulk who is having as much fun on a football field as anybody in the league – you won’t like him when he is having fun. He might have lost a yard of pace, his release and breaks may not be quite as sharp or incisive as once before, but you barely know about it.
In seven games this season he has 33 catches for 436 yards and six touchdowns, including 252 yards and two scores from 17 receptions in his last three games alone. Since signing with the Bucs, he has logged 78 catches for 1,059 yards and 13 touchdowns. He has waltzed back in like he was never away.
With his 123-yard outing against the Colts in Week 12, the future Hall of Famer lifted his career tally of 100-yard games to 30, one shy of the the great Tony Gonzalez’s NFL record for most by a tight end. Against Atlanta the following week he and Brady connected for their 90th regular-season touchdown, surpassing Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates (89) for second-most in history behind Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison (112).
“I came here to block, baby,” he said at the start of last season, playing down his involvement in the passing game. Nice try.
The cheat code still exists, his 27-yard touchdown against the Falcons reminding as much. Lined up in a trips concept at the tip of a triangle bunch with Atlanta showing Cover 1 on third-and-four, he barricaded both Foyesade Oluokun and Jaylinn Hawkins at the snap to sell the former on Chris Godwin’s scissor out in unison with Breshad Perriman’s in-breaking crosser. While Brady’s eyes and head angle dragged the high safety towards Godwin with Oluokun, Gronk had won his one-sided grappling match with Hawkins to break free on the deep over and make the catch for a clear path to the end zone.
For what it is worth, an iso’d Mike Evans had also torched his man on the out-and-up for an easy touchdown should Gronk have been unable to get the separation.
His second was a self-confused memory of his days in Foxboro, a textbook Brady audible switching the route to a fade on third-and-four from the 11 before Gronkowski, iso’d one-on-one on the boundary side, beat Erik Harris with violent hands on a simple outside release to reel in a perfect back-shoulder pass. Straight from the Patriots blueprint. It looked like Harris had trailed too easily too quickly, but the timing was too good, and Gronk’s hand-usage too polished.
Leonard Fournette had also been key on the play, his sneak underneath, something of a growing theme to this Bucs offense, leaving Deion Jones and Oluokun unsure as to whether or not to abandon their hook/curl roles.
“I would say that second touchdown definitely brought it back to the heyday with the fade,” Gronkowski said afterwards. “He gave me an audible, and I wasn’t supposed to have a fade, but he saw it and it just reminded me of the heyday with us.”
In the third quarter, he burst off the line to destroy Darren Hall in the flat and clear the way for Godwin on a short catch-and-run design, the effort and power and pride in carrying out his job maybe as refreshing and frightening as any touchdown catch.
At a time when defenses are implementing regular two-deep coverages as a means to reducing chunk plays and challenging offenses to play matriculating dink-and-dunk, pound-the-rock football, he is both feasting on soft points underneath while turning ever-reliable provider to Fournette’s running lanes. The catalyst to that being teams succumbing to putting more men in the box as they might wish for while trying to contain one of the league’s deepest aerial offenses and most sophisticated schemes when it comes to hitting every level of the field.
He was unstoppable against the Colts, to a point where the Colts stopped trying to stop him as he ran untouched on a simple go for a 26-yard catch teed up by Fournette’s scurry into the flat to lure in Darius Leonard. Gronk still had the speed to fulfil the timing, along with the nous to bend inwards and split the two safeties to Brady’s liking.
A bubble screen later in the game saw him carry three bodies with him before finally being dragged down after a gain of 11. Even his teammates sit back and admire sometimes.
“Gronk was like a diesel truck,” said second-year right tackle Tristan Wirfs. “That was insane. I remember just watching guys holding onto his t-shirt. He’s like, no, I’m in Year 11, I don’t want to get tackled. I’m just going to run you over. That was incredible.”
A two-tight end route combination with Cameron Brate freed him for a 32-yard catch-and-run on the drive ending in Ronald Jones’ one-yard touchdown, and he delivered decisive blocks, including on edge Kwity Paye, on the possession capped by Fournette’s game-winning 28-yard run.
He remains the NFL’s quintessential tight end, with elite pass-setting and a faultless scent for blocking assignments in addition to being a game-changing threat in the air.
Not so long ago he missed four games while nursing multiple rib fractures and a punctured lung, before exiting early in the defeat to the New Orleans Saints due to back spasms and sitting out a loss to Washington in which the Bucs offense struggled. It is no coincidence that his return has been followed by three straight wins across which Tampa have averaged a third-most 395.3 yards per game on offense.
Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and offensive line coach Joe Gilbert have him motioning one way pre-snap before bringing him back as a disguised blocker, they are faking him in as a block-and-peel option and trusting his point of attack to enable Wirfs to get up to the next level, he is splitting time between the slot and out-wide, he is getting separation, he is winning contested catches, he is racking up those tuddies.
Gronk is still doing it all, and dominating at doing it all, after his body tried to stop him from doing it all. For him to be a driving force in what is a superstar-heavy Bucs team really is special.
Watch the Buffalo Bills @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers live on Sky Sports NFL from 9.25pm on Sunday evening.