Rob Gronkowski never seems to be in a bad mood, but there’s no way he wasn’t bummed this past February watching the Patriots’ unreal victory over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI unfold from the sidelines. Sure, he was elated for his teammates – as the Patriots’ victory parade photos testify – but don’t expect Gronk to be as proud of his Super Bowl LI ring as he is of the Super Bowl XLIX one.
Against the Seahawks in football’s ultimate game two years ago, Gronk had six receptions for 68 yards including a touchdown. In fact, in all three of the Patriots’ playoff games that season, No. 87 found the end zone.
The Patriots proved last season that they can win a Super Bowl without Gronkowski, but with Julian Edelman having gone down with a season-ending ACL tear this past Friday against the Lions, Gronk instantly becomes Tom Brady’s security blanket again on offense. When in doubt, throw it up to Gronk … he’ll catch it. At least that’s the way it’s been since the Pats drafted him out of Arizona with the 42nd overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.
In just his second season in the NFL – the 2011 season – Gronk broke the NFL record for touchdowns scored in a single season by a tight end, finding the end zone 17 times. But in that year’s postseason, Gronkowski’s ugly history with injuries popped up again. After scoring three touchdowns in a divisional round win over the Broncos, he badly sprained his left ankle against the Ravens in the AFC title game. He wound up gutting it out in the 21-17 Super Bowl loss to the Giants, but he was clearly hobbled.
“With the role he did play [against the Giants], I tip my hat off to that kid, he’s a tough guy,” said former Pats wide receiver Deion Branch at the time. “I promise you 75 percent of the players in the NFL wouldn’t play [with that injury], and this guy toughed it out for his team.”
The asterisk next to Gronk’s name when it comes to the discussion of the greatest tight end of all-time is accompanied by the phrase “when healthy.” Call it bad luck, call it being injury prone, Gronk hasn’t completed a 16-game regular season since 2011 – the year he wound up banged up against the Giants in a Pats Super Bowl loss. He had two straight seasons in 2014 and 2015 in which he played 15 games per season (the Pats held him out late in the season for precautionary reasons), but last year he made it through just eight regular season games.
Gronk was blasted by Earl Thomas in the Pats’ home loss to the Seahawks in November, a hit he called “one of the hardest” of his football life. He wound up playing the next week against the Jets, but the Thomas hit had a lasting effect on the big tight end. Gronk was knocked out with an injury in the first half against New York, and after the game it was determined that he would need back surgery.
This is the year
At the start of training camp, Gronk said he was “good to go,” and he maintained that he had no restrictions following back surgery. Time will tell.
He surprisingly played in preseason games against the Texans and Lions the past couple of weeks and looked mostly like the same old Gronk. There was a spell during training camp where he had a terrible case of the “drops,” but things have looked better in recent weeks.
Make no mistake, he will have to be the same old Gronk this season if the Patriots want to win their third championship in four seasons. Edelman is gone and Gronk will have to immediately be good for 6-8 catches per game as Brady’s primary target in the middle of the field.
This season will also go a long way in determining Gronkowski’s place in NFL history. Another big injury and he might never be the same again. An injury free year marked with the typical Gronkowski stats, and he could cement himself as the top TE the game has ever seen.
Gronk hasn’t even played a real snap in 2017, but the year is shaping up to be his finest yet … so long as he can stay healthy, of course.