Gronk Aims for Return to Old Form
By Karen Guregian
FOXBORO -- During the third quarter of the regular season finale against the Jets on Sunday, Rob Gronkowski caught a pass from Tom Brady and the clock turned back.
It was 2017 again, or any dominant year on the Gronk resume. The Gillette Stadium crowd roared as the tight end took that Brady pass in stride underneath, turned upfield and rumbled by a slew of defenders for a 30-yard gain.
We hadn’t seen him blast through a defense with that kind of authority for awhile. We’ve just seen it in small doses this season.
With the playoffs around the corner, that might have been the cherry on top of an afternoon on which Brady looked more like the GOAT and the offense worked with much more precision than in weeks past.
The play, of course, didn’t count thanks to a highly questionable pass interference penalty on Dwayne Allen. In the bigger picture, however, seeing that kind of effort from Gronk was important even if it was called back.
He caught a couple of other passes for decent gains, but the 30-yarder was special and perhaps a sign of more of those plays to come. Because basically, this is what we can now expect from the former Pro Bowler, who has had back and ankle issues during the year.
We’ll get flashes of that dude who dominated defenses and drove defensive coordinators crazy during the past nine seasons. But is this just a tease, or can Gronkowski somehow bring more to the table when the Patriots host the AFC divisional round game a week from Sunday?
Speaking with Gronk privately at his locker, the wink he gave for an answer when asked if he had more in the tank for the playoffs suggested he was hoping to contribute in an even bigger way.
Maybe that’s wishful thinking, or maybe Gronk knows he can summon up some extra fuel for a body that just doesn’t operate the way it used to on a consistent basis. Maybe he can channel his mind to use those physical tools in grander spurts than what we’ve seen this season.
After all, it’s playoff time. The Patriots haven’t had a more feared weapon during the postseason than Gronk. He’s the NFL’s all-time leader in targets (111), receiving yards (972) and touchdowns (12) by a tight end during the postseason. He’s always managed to crank it up in January.
Gronkowski knows at this stage of his career, given the season he’s had, the week off will be good for him. He’s been more effective the games he comes back after time off.
Whether he’s super Gronk, pedestrian Gronk or something in between, the Patriots will take whatever they can get. He still impacts defenses whenever steps on the field.
At the very least, Sunday’s performance will give the defensive coordinator from the Texans, Chargers or Ravens reason for pause. Can he get away with covering Gronk with just one defender, or will he not risk it and devote double coverage? It could be one of those damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenarios.
Gronkowski would love nothing better than to pull out the surprise. But even with the wink, he was still cautious with his words. That’s because getting his body to cooperate remains a chore.
“I’m just game-to-game,” he said. “I’m just working as hard as I can. I’ve been working hard all year. I’m just looking forward, every single day, trying to get better.”
From week to week, the struggle has been noticeable. The season has been draining on the tight end both mentally and physically.
Before even getting to training camp, he vetoed a trade to Detroit, saying he wouldn’t play if the Patriots went through with the deal. Then he had to once again settle for an incentive-laden deal, just for the chance of being paid like a top tight end this year. None of those things sat well.
Gronkowski recently acknowledged the mental aspect has been tough, staying positive through the rough stretches. But he’s battling and wants to do well for his team.
He’s heard the whispers about his game being in decline. He knows what people are saying, what scribes are writing. He also knows what his body is telling him.
Right now, he’s just trying to push through. That was Gronk’s message to a group of reporters following Sunday’s win.
“You just got to ignore the noise and got to stay focused,” he said. “Everyone within the locker room just has to keep putting our heads forward, and keep looking to get better every single week. That’s what we’ve been doing.”
After the game, Gronkowski also talked about the players sticking together and supporting each other, lifting each other up. He’s felt the support.
He’s just hoping he can turn back the clock a little more, and deliver closer to the Gronk of 2017.
“I feel good,” he said. “I’m excited moving forward. Just gotta keep going, gotta keep working.”