If one were to make an all-time NFL playoffs team, there would be no consideration at tight end beyond Rob Gronkowski.
Gronkowski is the NFL's all-time leader among tight ends in receptions (81), receiving yards (1,163) and touchdown receptions (12). His four 100-yard receiving games are tied with Vernon Davis and Keith Jackson for the most ever and his 12 touchdown grabs are actually tied for the second most with John Stallworth among all players. Only Jerry Rice, with 22, has more.
Gronkowski has actually played in exactly 16 postseason games, so his 81-1,163-12 stat line reads like one particularly dominant season for a tight end. In fact, there have only been four seasons in NFL history in which a tight end has caught at least 80 passes for at least 1,000 yards and at least 12 touchdowns, and Gronkowski was responsible for two of them.
All of this happened, of course, while Gronkowski was wearing a New England uniform. He was a Patriot and a Tom Brady teammate from 2010-18 and then chose to retire in 2019 due to an accumulation of injuries. Feeling better a year later and with his quarterback now in Tampa, Gronkowski came out of retirement and was traded to the Buccaneers. The Bucs were thrilled, of course, but not necessarily expecting the Gronkowski who had 17 touchdowns in 2011 or 1,176 yards in 2015. Notably, Gronkowski had not played a full 16-game season since that great 2011 campaign, and had missed 13 games over his last three years in New England. It was reasonable to think Gronkowski would give the Buccaneers 10-12 really good games.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to Gronkowski's first trip to the playoffs as a Buccaneer: He not only suited up for all 16 games but played just over 75% of the team's offensive snaps. Tampa Bay may not have gotten 2011 Gronkowski but they got a two-way tight end who gave them 623 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. And now they might be about to see vintage playoff Gronkowski. Head Coach Bruce Arians has watched the big tight end get more and more fluid as the season has progressed and thinks he's in great shape for a 17th game, and hopefully more.
"I think, really, [from] the middle of October on it just got better and better," said Arians of Gronkowski's movement. "I think he was kind of shocked he didn't have any injuries – it's been a long time since he played 16 [games]. We did our best to make sure he got through this season ready to roll in the playoffs."
Part of the process in getting Gronkowski to the postseason in position to put up his usual big numbers was saving him from himself during the weeks of practice.
"He practices his tail off," said Arians. "He prepares, he practices. I had to force him to start taking days off to make sure he was fresh on Sundays. I think he learned to like that and it was beneficial for him. He is one heck of a competitor and loves to play the game."
"I definitely feel good [and] feel comfortable with the playbook, especially. Also, just going out there and playing with my body, [it] just feels good [and] it just feels like it's a natural routine week in and week out now. That's the way it's supposed to be, that's the way I planned on it to be and how I saw it to be. It's just week in and week out, just a daily routine to get out there, get better, focus on things I need to focus on, get treatment and get myself ready to go every single week."
Gronkowski scored four of his seven touchdowns in the Bucs' last seven games and, perhaps most notably, turned in three of his four longest plays of the season in that span. He has been more of a downfield weapon for Brady in the season's second half, and that's something that Patriots fans saw for years in the playoffs. He hits the playoffs on a roll and feeling spry. He met the goal he stated for himself upon unretiring, that of being a reliable player for his new team, but now he knows it's time to turn it up a notch.
"I feel really good," said Gronkowski. "Just been taking care of my body week-in and week-out. I'm definitely proud to play all 16 games – that was my goal, just to go out there and be reliable week-in and week-out and be consistent week-in and week-out. Now, bring that to the playoffs and bring that to another level for the playoffs. I feel real good and it was definitely a good season overall, but it's playoff time and [we] just have to keep doing what we've been doing all year [and] keep doing what I've been doing to keep myself healthy and keep myself ready for every Sunday."
Gronkowski's per-game averages for receptions goes up by close to one full catch from the regular season to the postseason and his yards go up eight per game. He has scored 0.75 touchdowns per game in the playoffs, as compared to 0.66 per game in the regular season.
"It's a whole different season," he said. "Literally, nothing matters, what we did in the regular season. All 16 of those games, they didn't exist. Yes, they got us to this point, but now we're at this point [where] those games don't matter at all. It's another level of play."
Gronkowski has found that next level throughout his career. The Buccaneers are hoping he does it again this January.