On March 24, 2019, Rob Gronkowski retired from the NFL. But after a year-long hiatus, he returned to the league last April to join his longtime quarterback and friend, Tom Brady, with the Buccaneers. The rest, as they say, has been history.
Being away from football for a year before coming back to play in the Florida heat certainly meant there was going to be an adjustment period for the future Hall of Fame tight end last summer. He had to get back to his playing weight, plus he had to get back into the swing of being a professional football player again. It took some time, but week by week and game by game, it was clear that the veteran was making his way back.
The adjustment and transition back into being the Rob Gronkowski of old went impressively well. In fact, it probably doesn’t get talked about enough. In his first year with Tampa Bay, he caught 45 passes for 623 yards and seven touchdowns. In Super Bowl LV, he caught six passes for 67 yards and two touchdowns. In his age-31 season, he proved that he’s still a threat as a pass-catcher while being truly dominant as a blocker. Remember, he says he’s a blocking tight end, after all.
So, what does year two of Gronkowski’s Buccaneer career have in store? After Tuesday’s practice, the 32-year-old had this to say about the area where he feels he has most improved over the last year:
“First off, conditioning wise. Coming off a year of not playing (in 2019) and then heading into a camp like this, it’s hard work. Coach [Bruce] Arians works us hard. He gets us in shape. He makes sure our bodies are ready for the upcoming season. That’s one of the biggest things I feel like is just being in shape. They’re doing a good job as coaches – giving me the reps, giving me them back-to-back to make sure that I’m staying in shape and that I’m getting in shape. That’s a big point of emphasis is staying in shape, so I can go full speed every play.”
Gronkowski certainly looks ready to go full speed every play, and his improved conditioning hasn’t gone unnoticed by his coaches. Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich pointed to exactly that when asked Tuesday about how Gronkowski looks heading into this season:
“Great – he has a better idea of what we’re doing. Obviously, he’s in better shape, he knows what to expect now being down here in the heat. He’s a big guy so this heat is always going to get to him. But he’s working through it, he’s a pro, there’s a reason he is who he is. He knows how to work himself through these moments, through these tough moments to make sure he’s ready to roll when it’s time to roll.”
There’s no getting around the fact that 2020 started slow for Gronkowski the pass-catcher. But when that part of his game reemerged, he was dangerous. And if he can produce at a similar level in 2021, Tampa Bay’s offense is going to be hard to stop, especially when you factor in Cameron Brate and a healthy O.J. Howard. Howard even spoke on Tuesday as well about learning from Gronkowski’s work ethic:
“Rob is the man because every day you get the same character with him being the loving, funny personality. But he’s going to come out and work hard and a lot of people kind of get that misconception of him, but he works hard every day. When you see a guy who already has so much notoriety and some many accolades and still come out here every day to do it, it shows you how to be a pro. That’s something I take from him. A guy who is definitely a Hall of Famer. He still comes out here and does the little things right. It makes it so much sweeter to see it that way.”
For as much attention as the wide receiving corps gets, Tampa Bay’s tight end room is just as insane. With a “full speed every play” Gronkowski and a healthy Howard complemented by the always-steady Brate, opposing defenses have to be awake for hours at night thinking about how they’ll stop the Buccaneer passing game this fall.