This holiday season is already a better one for Rob Gronkowski than last year’s.
On Dec. 3, 2016, the Patriots placed Gronk on injured reserve, ending his season. Sixty-four days later, Gronk watch his team win a Super Bowl from the sidelines.
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Judging by the parade pictures through the city of Boston a couple days later, you wouldn’t have thought Gronk was upset by not being a focal point of the Pats’ victory. But beyond the goofiness exterior is a highly competitive athlete – one who knows he can be considered the greatest tight end of all-time if he can only just stay healthy.
“Competition is huge,” Gronkowski said this past summer ahead of training camp. “Competition makes you better. Competition makes you better as a player … I had a longer vacation than most of the guys (in the NFL). I’m more eager than anyone to get rolling.”
Gronk and the Patriots agreed to an incentive package in his contract prior to this season where he can earn up to $5.5 million more if he “participates in 90 percent of the offensive snaps OR catches 80 passes OR gains 1,200 receiving yards OR scores 14 touchdowns OR is named a first-team All-Pro.”
Gronk should get there simply based on the “90 percent of offensive snaps” part, but as many fantasy football owners will tell you – Gronk hasn’t exactly been Gronk throughout this season in the major statistical categories. He currently has 46 catches for 702 yards and seven touchdowns this season. Those are good numbers for most tight ends, but they are hardly “Gronk-ian.”
The Patriots looked as though they were protecting their investment in Gronk in the early portion of the season. Gronk rarely ran the “go-routes” that have gotten him in trouble in the past with injuries. Any Patriots fan cringes at the thought of Gronk lumbering straight up the field with a safety ready to go low after the catch.
So the Pats tweaked what they normally do with Gronk a bit this season. He’s running more “in-routes.” He’s running more “out routes.” He’s running more fades in the end zone. Basically, the Patriots are trying to keep him from being vulnerable in the middle of the field.
Sunday against Miami, Gronk had arguably his best game of the season. It seemed as though the Pats were loosening the reigns a bit on No. 87. He was catching balls across the middle again, and he finished with five catches for 82 yards and two touchdowns.
Prior to Sunday’s game, the Patriots kind of implemented a “break only in case of emergency” deal with Gronk. Statistically he had his two best outings of the season coming off of Patriots losses. In New England, after all, two losses in a row counts as “an emergency.”
Coming off the opening night loss to the Chiefs, Gronk caught six balls for a season-high 116 yards and a touchdown against the Saints. Coming off the loss to Carolina, Gronk caught six balls for 83 yards and two touchdowns against the Jets.
The Pats are currently 9-2 and are in no danger of missing the playoffs. But as anyone who’s followed this team for the past 16 years knows – December is when the Pats’ bread is buttered. The Pats likely need to go 5-0 in the month of December to clinch home field advantage in the AFC. The two biggest tests will come at Buffalo this Sunday, and at Pittsburgh on Dec. 17. Gronk is historically otherworldly in his hometown of Buffalo, and given that the Dec. 17 game against the Steelers is basically the regular season AFC title game – expect the Pats to treat it as an “emergency game.”
With visions of TD grabs dancing in his head, Gronk is poised to own the holiday season in Boston.