In 12 days, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will walk into a (mostly empty) Louisiana Superdome, ready to take on the defending NFC South champs with a roster that now includes Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski.
At least they expect to be ready. At the end of an unprecedented offseason and training camp that was largely wiped out and compressed, it's an open question how prepared all 32 NFL teams will be for their first live competitive action in Week One. Head Coach Bruce Arians thinks his squad has done a good job of making up for lost time and believes they are on track to be ready.
"I wouldn't think we're way behind at all," he said on Monday. "I think we're really close. By Wednesday of this week I think we'll be where we need to be and we'll start shutting down a lot of the hitting and making sure we're getting ready."
Gronkowski isn't just trying to get back into football shape after a strange offseason; he hasn't played since February of 2019. After coming out of his one-year retirement to reunite with Brady, Gronkowski is trying to recapture the level of play that led to perhaps the most dominant decade by a tight end in NFL history. Arians has acknowledged on a couple occasions that Gronkowski has had to struggle to acclimate to the Florida summer heat, and said the big tight end has had some ups and downs because of it. But Gronkowski thinks he'll have little trouble getting back into game day mode in Week One.
View some of the photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
"I played in the NFL for nine years – it's just like practice," he said. "It just came back like that. I'm hoping that's how it is for the game. I'm going to prepare to the best that I can and hopefully right when I get out there it's just like any other game. Game on, baby! From the first play on."
Fortunately for the Buccaneers and for Gronkowski, he doesn't have to carry the load alone. Tampa Bay has possibly the deepest group of tight ends in the league and can get very good production out of O.J. Howard, Cameron Brate and Antony Auclair. Gronkowski is used to being on the field for the vast majority of his team's offensive snaps, and perhaps that will be the case in Week One. But there's plenty of room for mixing and matching with all those tight ends.
"The weather got him for a while, but he's in good shape," said Arians. "It's one of those things – play it by ear. If somebody's got a hot hand, you keep playing him. Same thing as a blocker – some guys handle some people, so it's just going to be a matter of matching up. If it's a situation where we're running the ball and he's our best guy, he'll play more. Same thing if he's the guy in the passing game. We haven't really put the final game plan together, so it's hard to say."
The Buccaneers have three more days of practice this week before they turn their attention fully and completely to the Saints next week. Thre's time for the game plan to come together, of course, and there's time for Gronkowski to get even closer to peak form before he plays his first game in 19 months.
"What I want to accomplish until the game is gaining the trust of my teammates, gaining the respect of my teammates, so when I go out there on the field, the guy next to me trusts me and I can go out there on the field and trust the guy next to me, too," he said. "That's what it's all about in practice – gaining the trust of each other so when you go out there, you can perform as a team, perform as a player and do what I need to do. Go out there and do my job at a fast pace without thinking and just play the game of football without thinking about it. That's what it's all about – that's what you need to accomplish in practice."
At some point after all those practices, Gronkowski will line up in his new red and pewter uniform and take his first snap as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. He already has a pretty good idea of what that's going to feel like.
"That first snap is not going to be for, what, another 12 days, is it?" he said. "So [I'm] just preparing to the best that I can so when that first snap does hit I'm ready to go. I'm prepared, I'm not thinking. Hopefully it's just filled with joy, man. That's what I'm going for. Just go out there and be filled with joy and just be filled with adrenaline. That's all you can ask for. Joy and adrenaline – that's a great combo right there."