Rob Gronkowski was supposed to be here for a good time, not a long time. When he retired in 2019 at age 29 after winning his third Super Bowl, it felt right. Gronk had romped over defenses like no other player in NFL history when healthy, but he managed to play 16 games in a regular season only twice; it’s hard, after all, to maintain the joints and muscles of a kaiju. And he posted some of the worst numbers of his career in 2018. For someone who famously enjoys his time off the field as much as his time on it, retiring seemed reasonable. When Gronk left the NFL, he was tied for third all time in touchdown receptions by a tight end and third all time in Party Rocking, behind the guys from LMFAO. (Did you know they’re an uncle-nephew combo and not brothers, as you probably imagined? Wild.)
When Gronk came out of retirement to join the Buccaneers in 2020, I figured he was simply a good luck charm for Tom Brady as the GOAT adjusted to a new team for the first time in his career. The Bucs had a loaded receiving corps with great options at tight end, including 2017 first-round pick O.J. Howard. Over Tampa Bay’s first two games last season, Gronk made two catches for 11 yards. In September, he referred to himself as a “blocking tight end.”
Gronk: “I’m a blocking tight end. I came to block, baby,”— Eduardo A. Encina (@EddieInTheYard) September 25, 2020
from today’s Gronk presser, where Gronk emphasizes he’s a blocking tight end.#GoBucs #Bucs #BroncosCountry #Patriots #nfl #NFLTwitter pic.twitter.com/WPSEjHjLBp
Before Howard went down with a season-ending Achilles injury last October, he had more targets, receptions, and yards than Gronk did. And while Gronk’s usage went up after Howard’s injury, his per-game stats were still the worst since his rookie season—even lower than those from his final campaign in New England. He finished 2020 with 623 receiving yards; in 2013, when he missed nine games with a pair of injuries, he had 592.
But in the Bucs’ Super Bowl win over the Chiefs, Gronk caught six passes for 67 yards and two touchdowns. (It wouldn’t be a Super Bowl if Gronk didn’t catch a touchdown pass from Brady.) That was a sign of things to come: Gronk has scored two touchdowns in both of Tampa Bay’s games so far in the 2021 season. He’s leading the league in touchdown catches and already has more (four) than he did in his final season with the Patriots (three). He’s once again taking defenders on involuntary rides to the end zone:
There’s now no question who Tampa Bay’s top tight end is. Even though Howard is apparently healthy, he has played just 17 total snaps over the team’s first two games, catching one pass. The recently retired guy has usurped the recent first-round pick.
I have come to terms with the fact that Brady will be a great quarterback for the rest of my life. There are some players we’ll get to tell our grandkids about watching, but not Brady—we’ll be watching him with our grandkids. But Brady has always been clear that he wants to play forever. He subjects himself to an eccentric personal health regimen that strictly regulates what goes into his body. Nobody has ever regulated what goes into his body less than Gronk. If you cut him, Red Bull and vodka come pouring out.
Gronkowski’s greatness was long defined by his physical dominance, but that waned as he got older. Someone with that playing style and that career arc shouldn’t be able to begin a second prime in his 30s. So how has he suddenly discovered a Four Loko–flavored fountain of youth?
Through two games, the 2021 Buccaneers have the most efficient goal-line offense possible. They have had the ball inside the opponent’s 5-yard line five times. They have run five plays, all of which have been passes, and all of which have resulted in touchdowns. Some teams get down to the goal line, put their biggest running back behind three tight ends and a fullback, and slam him into the line of scrimmage on first, second, and third down. The Bucs just have Brady throw one pass for a touchdown.
Gronk has been involved, scoring two of his four touchdowns on plays that started inside the opposing 5. Here’s one of those two, from the opener against the Cowboys. He blocks for several seconds before running toward the goal line and catching a pass.
As a tight end, Gronk has always known how to score in goal-to-go situations. But his scoring now looks different than it did during his Pats heyday. Here’s Gronk scoring a touchdown on a fade from Brady in 2015.
That’s not Gronk’s job anymore. If the Buccaneers want to score on a fade, they throw the ball to Mike Evans. Looks a lot like Gronk used to, right?
Happy Mike Evans day pic.twitter.com/zjAnYEBJ9A— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) September 19, 2021
Gronkowski became the sport’s preeminent tight end during a decade in which the position’s meaning evolved, or perhaps disintegrated. In football’s early days, the term “tight end” was used in direct opposition to “split end,” the position that’s now called wide receiver. Tight ends were aligned “tight” to the offensive line; split ends were “split” out wide. This distinction held for years. As the game has evolved, however, tight ends have spent less time as a sixth blocker and more time taking snaps in roles typically held by wide receivers—sometimes in the slot, sometimes out wide. Some “tight ends” rarely line up in “tight.” Players like Travis Kelce, who almost never take inline snaps, are only called tight ends because of how big they are. Let’s just call them Swole Receivers.
Gronk has been a key part of that change. The league’s top receiving tight end when he was a rookie was Jason Witten, who took 78.5 percent of his 2010 pass snaps in tight to the line of scrimmage and just nine pass snaps split out wide, according to positional data from Pro Football Focus. Three of the top five tight ends that season took at least 70 percent of their pass snaps in a “tight” position; none took more than 70 pass snaps out wide. Thirteen tight ends took at least 100 pass snaps in 2010 in which they blocked instead of running a route.
Compare that to last season, when none of the top five receiving tight ends took more than 55 percent of their pass snaps inline, and Kelce took 245 pass snaps from a wide position—3.5 times more than any tight end did a decade earlier. Only one tight end, Chris Herndon of the Jets, had at least 100 pass-blocking snaps.
In 2015, Gronk became the first tight end in the PFF database to record at least 200 pass snaps out wide. In New England, he took more than 50 percent of his pass snaps aligned in tight just once, as a rookie. The traditional value of tight ends is derived from their versatility; since they block and receive, their presence on the field offers no indication to defenses whether a run or a pass is coming. While Gronk’s blocking ability has long been respected, his value has always come less from his versatility than from his combination of size, speed, and strength. He was the ultimate matchup nightmare, and the Pats exploited those matchups in the middle of the field.
Teams guarding Gronk out wide with a linebacker quickly found out that their linebacker was too slow—like the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.
Teams guarding Gronk out wide with a defensive back quickly found out that their defensive back was too small—just ask the Bills.
And in Tampa Bay, Gronk is doing … none of this.
The Buccaneers are not using Gronk as a wide receiver or lining him up in the slot. They’re primarily using him as a traditional tight end, aligned right next to the offensive line. In 2020, he took 82.3 percent of his pass snaps inline—the highest rate of his career by a massive margin. Just five years after breaking the record for “wide” snaps by a tight end, Gronk led the league in tight end snaps attached to the line.
Of course, the Bucs don’t need Gronk to split out wide. They have a massive receiver to take advantage of size mismatches in Evans. They have a terrific slot option in Chris Godwin. Their third receiver is Antonio Brown, who, like Gronk, is performing well in a different role than the one that landed him All-Pro status in the 2010s. The Patriots never had wide receiver depth like this. Few football teams ever have!
With spectacular receiving talent all across the depth chart, the Bucs don’t need Gronk to reinvent the position. They need the blocking and receiving versatility that teams have sought from tight ends for decades. Even though Gronk has lost a step athletically, he’s still incredibly strong and has incredible hands, which means he can block and catch just fine. This may also explain why Gronk has dominated Howard in Tampa Bay’s tight end snaps, as Howard is a faster, leaner player who’s best suited to a receiving role.
Gronk is not a “blocking tight end,” as he joked in last year’s presser. But it’s more plausible than ever that he’ll stay in to block. During his goofy stint on this week’s Manning brothers broadcast of Monday Night Football, he gave away one piece of real football information: When defenders feel like he’s about to block, it’s much easier for him to score touchdowns. That was clear in one of his touchdowns against the Cowboys. Gronk was supposed to run a regular route, but Brady checked him into a delay route on which he blocked before releasing, as outlined by ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky:
Gronk may be producing like the old Gronk, but he isn’t playing like the old Gronk. And that’s OK! That’s not what the Bucs are asking him to do. There is no Four Loko fountain of youth, and there was no way that Gronk could continue to be an overwhelming athletic force for decades. But he can keep filling up the stat sheet. People who party hard rarely age gracefully—but Gronk might be catching touchdowns until he’s 38 and Brady is 50.