Two weeks after Super Bowl LIII, Rob Gronkowski was still finding it a little tough to walk because of a hard shot he had taken to a quad during the game. Six weeks after Super Bowl LV, on the other hand, Gronkowski is already physically prepared to run it back.
Gronkowski won Super Bowl LIII with the New England Patriots (and Tom Brady), 13-3 over the Rams, a game in which he made the key 29-yard catch that set up the game's only touchdown. Gronkowski won Super Bowl LV with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (and Tom Brady), 31-9 over the Chiefs, a game in which he scored his team's first two touchdowns. In between, he spent a year in retirement, a decision based not on that quad injury but on how his body felt overall after nine rugged NFL seasons.
Gronkowski's return to the NFL in 2020 was triumphant in the most obvious way as he got to spend time with another Lombardi Trophy, but also in how it left him feeling physically after a very lengthy 20-game season. In addition to the recovery time that his year in retirement gave him, changes to how he maintains his body have proved successful, too.
"I feel like I can play another full season right now if we started," said Gronkowski, who won't actually have to suit up again until August. "So I feel really good. Everything that I've changed throughout my career is definitely paying off and it feels great. It's great to see everything pay off. I feel really good right now. I feel light, I feel flexible, I feel like I can go out and just play some football. Just go out and not be thinking and just play football and run routes and do what I've got to do out there on the field. I definitely feel like I'm ready to go, play another full season coming up this year and just take it a year at a time like that."
The first thing to which Gronkowski had to adjust upon arriving in Tampa last summer was the heat, which led to some joking jabs from Head Coach Bruce Arians during training camp. Then he had to get his legs back under him, and at the same time become comfortable in a new offense, something he hadn't had to worry about for a decade. With no offseason program and no preseason games, that process necessarily happened as the 2020 season was in progress.
"I would say about halfway through the season I felt like I was very comfortable," said Gronkowski. "Just throughout the whole entire process of knowing the plays, feeling good out there on the field – it just all came together, I would say, about halfway through. It just felt good, too, when everything starts clicking like that, when I break the huddle and I don't even have to think about the play. I just go out there and do it."
Gronkowski averaged 68.4 receiving yards per game and just under nine touchdowns per season during his nine seasons with the Patriots. He didn't record his first 70-yard game or his first touchdown as a Buccaneer until Week Six in 2020. His first 100-yard game came in Week 12, and his first two-score game in Week 16. In the end, though, he finished with 45 catches for 623 yards and seven scores, absolutely the sort of production the Bucs were looking for when they traded for him last spring. Gronkowski also helped tremendously with his blocking in the run game.
And he thinks 2021 will be better.
"I'm definitely looking forward to this year of just going out there and just doing it," he said. "Not thinking about the play, not thinking about what I have and just knowing it in the back of my mind so it's like second nature. That's going to make the season that much better, already knowing the playbook going into it."
But the most impressive number he put up in his first year in Tampa was probably "20." That's how many games he played, out of a possible 20. Gronkowski hadn't played a full regular season since 2011, his second year in the league, and he had certainly never appeared in 20 contests in a single campaign. The Patriots tended to get first-round byes during his tenure, which avoids a grueling four-game postseason.
"This year, just playing all 20 games, all 16 regular-season games, not missing a practice, not missing a game, not missing anything in the postseason was just a great feeling," said Gronkowski. "It was just something I wanted to prove to myself, too, that I could do. I kind of proved to myself that the things I've learned and I've taken in and I've changed, I can play a full season and I can play a full postseason, and at a high level, too.
"It was just great overall to complete that mission and now I feel like I can do it again, too. I feel like I can do it now with a year under my belt. A year under my belt doing it a different way than I was doing it early on. So I can feel like I can just pick it up and keep improving now throughout this season, also."