Before Rob Gronkowski came to Tampa in an April trade following a one-year retirement that didn't stick, the last pass that Tom Brady had thrown to him had been a huge one.
Brady's New England Patriots were facing the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII, a game that surprised everyone with its almost total lack of offense. The game was tied at 3-3 midway through the fourth quarter but New England had driven down to the Rams' 31-yard line and faced a second-and-three. Instead of moving the chains with a short pass, Brady looked down the left sideline for Gronkowski, one of the most trusted targets of Brady's entire career.
Gronkowski lined up in the slot and pushed directly upfield as he widened his route out towards the sideline. Right before the snap, the Rams' Cory Littleton, one of the NFL's best coverage linebackers, rushed over to take the tight end in man-to-man coverage. Gronkowski got a step on Littleton and Brady saw it, lifting a floater over both players that Gronkowski dived to catch at the two-yard line. Sony Michel scored the game's only touchdown on the next play and the Patriots won their sixth Super Bowl with Brady at the helm, 13-3.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 17 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
Brady played one more season in New England while Gronkowski hung up his cleats, citing a general build-up of various injuries. However, when Brady shocked the league by leaving the Patriots for Tampa in free agency, Gronkowski got the itch to play with his old pal again. And now that the Buccaneers are headed back to the playoffs for the first time in 13 years – not coincidentally with Brady at the helm – the six-time champ is glad to have Gronkowski by his side to chase another title.
"I've got a lot of trust and confidence in the biggest moments with him," said Brady. "Sometimes I think about players where, if it was the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, who do I want in the game with me? He definitely fits that. That just means in the biggest moments, who do you want out there?"
Gronkowski has been delivering increasingly large and down-field contributions as the season has progressed and he has steadily begun to move better and better after his year out of the game. In last week's win in Detroit he caught touchdown passes of 33 and 25 yards (the second one was thrown by Blaine Gabbert). Three weeks prior against Kansas City he had his first 100-yard game as a Buccaneer and it included a 48-yard catch. Gronkowski had another 44-yard play in Carolina and he has as many catches of 40-plus yards this year as Mike Evans does. Only Scotty Miller, with three, has more for the Buccaneers. Gronkowski has scored seven touchdowns in Tampa Bay's last 10 games.
The result is that the rest of the Buccaneers, his new teammates in 2020, have begun to feel the same way about Gronkowski as Brady does.
"When he can deliver like he always has, it's a great compliment to him and the way that not only I feel about him, but how all his teammates feel about him," said Brady. "[He's] just an incredible player, teammate and everything. I love playing with the guy."
It never seemed like a coincidence that Gronkowski choose to come back from retirement as soon as Brady found a new challenge in Tampa. Of course, a year off to let his body heal also played a big part, as he felt like he could play at a level close to what made him one of the NFL's most dominant players for the past decade. If it was Brady's presence that brought Gronkowski back to the game, he's glad it worked out that way because he's enjoyed his time as a Buccaneer.
"The experience has been great," said Gronkowski. "It's been a fun season. At times, it takes its toll and feels like it's been going on for a while. Then there's times where it's Week 17, you look back and you're like, 'Man, time flew.' It's already Week 17. We're about to play our last game of the season and head to the playoffs next week.' Overall, it's been a successful journey so far. It's been a successful time coming out of retirement and playing this year. It's definitely been an enjoyable ride this whole year."
Gronkowski has 43 receptions for 594 yards and seven touchdowns, which are sizeable numbers in a Bruce Arians that has not often favored tight ends. He won't approach 1,000 yards like he did four times with the Patriots, but he will accomplish something he hasn't done since his second year in the league, 2011. Assuming he's on the field to open this Sunday's game, Gronkowski will have played in and started all 16 games this year. Given his retirement and previous injuries, there was reason to believe that the Bucs would have to settle for something less than a full season of Gronkowski, but instead he's been a stalwart all year and has been on the field for 76% of the team's offensive snaps.
"He has an incredible work ethic, [he's] tough, [a] very unselfish player, [a] great teammate and does whatever you ask him to do," said Brady. "[He is] one of the few tight ends who can be a dominant blocker in the run game and in the pass protection game, but then also run routes and be a dominant pass catcher, which is very rare for any real tight end."
If Gronkowski gets in his 16th game of the season on Sunday, that will match the number of games he has played in the postseason, and he has often been brilliant on that stage. His career playoff numbers include 81 catches for 1,163 yards and 12 touchdowns. With Brady once again choosing where to deliver the ball and Gronkowski remaining very much one of his most trusted allies, there's a good chance the big tight end will add to those numbers this January.