Rob Gronkowski caught two touchdown passes in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 30-17 win in Atlanta last Sunday, and both of them demonstrated how important he is to the team's offense, and to Tom Brady in particular.
On the first one, Gronkowski lined up detached from the line on the left side and had to fight through two defenders trying to knock him off his route with hits right after the snap. Neither one slows him down much as he bends over the middle, but the play is bit slow in developing compared to what the Buccaneers have done for much of the season. Overall, Brady has averaged 2.51 seconds from snap to throw this season, the third fastest in the league. On this one, though, he holds the ball for 3.59 seconds as he patiently waits for Gronkowski to free up and get a step on safety Jaylin Hawkins. The moment that happens, Brady snaps off a dart that gets past a diving Hawkins and is snatched cleanly out of the air by Gronkowski, who then lopes into the end zone untouched for a 27-yard score.
Neither Brady nor Gronkowski had much time react when the window for this play being a success opened, but they've established such a deep rapport over the years that the play was like second nature. On Gronkowski's second touchdown, that connection manifested itself before the snap. The Bucs lined up in a 3x1 with Gronkowski isolated on the right side of the offense. Both he and Brady saw the man-to-man press coverage on the tight end by safety Erik Harris, with a single-high safety in the middle of the field shaded a bit towards the three-man bunch to the left. Brady used a hand signal to give Gronkowski an audible at the line and at the snap Gronkowski simply stutter-stepped around the press and ran straight up into the end zone. Brady floated a fade over the top and Gronkowski easily hauled it in for an 11-yard score.
When asked about that second play and ones like it on Thursday, Brady described it as a bit of pre-snap problem-solving. And nobody helps him solve problems better than Gronkowski.
"We've played together [so long], I know basically every situation that's come up," said Brady. "I know how he would deal with it. So much about football is anticipating what the problems will be as opposed to trying to figure out how to solve the problem after the play. I think a lot of it is solving the problem before things happen. Gronk, he knows what I'm thinking, I know what he's thinking. We've just done it so long together. It's really nice. It's a great luxury for two position players like that that have played together for as long as we have."
The Buccaneers are pretty pleased about it, too. When Brady made the NFL-rattling decision to leave New England after 20 years to sign with the Buccaneers in March of 2020, his buddy Gronkowski was enjoying a wide variety of entertaining pursuits in his retirement. Later in the offseason, Gronkowski would choose to end that retirement and return to play with Brady, with the Buccaneers working out a trade with the Patriots to get his rights. Neither Gronkowski nor Brady has really shared the details of how that came to pass but it is widely – and probably correctly – assumed that a call from Brady got the ball rolling.
"I don't remember exactly how it all went down," said Brady. "I don't remember exactly how things played out with that. I'm just happy he decided he wanted to come out of retirement. Obviously playing together with him is just awesome for me. When I chose the Bucs, I wasn't sure if he was going to come out of retirement or if he wanted to play, but it's been amazing to watch him performance."
Gronkowski had retired after the 2018 season in New England due to a gradual accumulation of injuries that had sapped some of the enjoyment out of his profession. The year off treated him well, however, and he came back in good shape, just needing to put some weight back on and get back into football shape. That process was a bit gradual in 2020, but he managed to play in all 20 games and by the end of the season was scoring two touchdowns in the Super Bowl. He has since done that three more times in 2021 despite essentially missing six games with rib and back injuries.
Obviously, Gronkowski hasn't had quite the same good injury fortune in 2021 as he did in 2020, but when he's on the field he has played at arguably an even higher level. In six games (not counting six snaps in New Orleans in Week Eight) he has hauled in 33 passes for 436 yards and six touchdowns. If we discount that aborted effort to return from his first injury against the Saints, he has averaged 5.5 receptions, 72.7 yards and 1.0 touchdown per game. That's his highest per-game catch mark since 2014 and his highest per-game yardage mark since 2017. His 9.3 yards per target this season are better than what he had when he was a first-team All-Pro putting up 1,124 yards back in 2014.
Brady, of course, has seen all of it. The G.O.A.T. of NFL quarterbacks was in his 11th season when Gronkowski arrived in Foxborough in 2010 and the two turned into one of the most prolific pitch-and-catch duos in league history over nine seasons together. In fact, the two touchdowns Brady tossed to Gronkowski in Atlanta marked the 89th and 90th time those two have hooked up for a score in the regular season. That passed the Chargers' Philip Rivers-Antonio Gates duo (89) for second in league history behind Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison.
There are nine tight ends in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and four who have topped 10,000 career yards (Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Gates and Shannon Sharpe). Gronkowski is fifth on the yardage list at 8,980 and third with 92 touchdowns, though his incredible postseason numbers (1,273 yards and 14 touchdowns) would certainly narrow the gap a bit. Gronkowski is obviously not in the Hall of Fame yet after resetting his five-year clock with his un-retirement, but he seems like a lock. And Brady, who again has had a front row seat for it all, doesn't need to wait for that to confer the G.O.A.T status on Gronkowski. Takes one to know one.
"He's obviously the greatest tight end ever to play the game," said Brady. "He's still doing it. Again, I think his ability to block in the run game, run routes in the pass game, going against smaller players, and then he's very clutch. He comes up big in the biggest moments."