By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — As far as football players go, they don’t make ’em much better than Rob Gronkowski. Enormous, powerful, fast, strong, fearless, tougher than nails — few players in the history of the sport have ever even approached Gronkowski’s power at his peak.
So when the future Hall of Famer came out of retirement and worked the system for the Patriots to trade him to Tampa Bay to reunite with Tom Brady, a chorus of “what gives?” resounded throughout the New England region.
With two games in the books, though, it doesn’t appear like the Patriots are missing out on much, if anything, with Rob Gronkowski.
To an extent, a slow start was to be expected for the 31-year-old who didn’t play any football from February 2019 until September of 2020. And even in Gronkowski’s final year, he was effective as a blocker and occasional pass catcher (and Super Bowl-winning-play-maker, of course), but he wasn’t the explosive threat that he had been throughout his career. That’s why the trade return for Gronkowski (plus a seventh-round pick) was so low, with the Patriots merely receiving a fourth-round pick for one of the most dominant players in league history.
So, expectations — at least to start the season — were understandably low.
Despite that low bar, Gronkowski has still underwhelmed in his two games with Tampa thus far.
As a receiver, he’s been targeted four times. He has caught two of those passes, for a total of 11 yards. Of the nine Buccaneers players to have been targeted this year, Gronkowski has the fewest targets, the fewest receptions, the fewest receiving yards, and the fewest snap counts.
A pass to No. 87 on Sunday resulted in a Brady interception, which looked like it happened because Gronkowski was so late to come out of his break and drive up the field.
It’s possible that Brady simply let that one sail (they do love to play the blame game down in Tampa, don’t they?), but the bottom line is that the Brady-Gronkowski connection was supposed to be a major strength of that potentially lethal Bucs offense this year. So far, it’s been anything but threatening.
Interestingly, the man who bullied his way through contact that would have drawn penalties on most other receivers was the beneficiary of one of the softest pass interference penalties in league history:
Even that, though, was a pass that the real Gronkowski catches in stride before deflecting away the helpless safety and rumbling along for 40 yards. This one, though, just wasn’t there.
When Gronkowski has gotten the ball in his hands, it’s been … uneventful.
There was a glimpse of the old Gronk there, bowling over a defensive back. But it’s all hardly what Brady or the Bucs had in mind when they made the deal to coax the player out of retirement.
Of course — of course of course of course of course — you can’t say anything about the NFL season in September of 2020 without noting that it’s the strangest season of all time and saying that there was no preseason. It’s not unrealistic to believe that Gronkowski and the Buccaneers planned an easing in of sorts to tackle football here, in order to help work him into game shape by November and December.
If so, then that’s a good plan. Maybe it will work.
But just from an eyeball standpoint, the 87 out there these days looks a lot more like the continuation of the player who faded in 2018 after giving every ounce of himself to the sport of football for the previous 15 or so years. Gronkowski clearly kept himself in shape during his retirement, but going up against NFL competition, he looks at times to be running in quicksand.
He’s still plenty big and he’s plenty strong, and with Brady under center, he’ll surely come through with a clutch grab in a big moment this season. He’s too talented not to.
But in terms of the unstoppable force, first ballot Hall of Famer who ran roughshod through the entirety of the NFL from 2011-18? It would appear as though that player unfortunately remains in retirement.