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He won’t be the Gronk of yore, but there might still be magic there

John Romano | He’s at an age when even the best tight ends begin to slip, so the Bucs need to be careful how much responsibility they heap on Rob Gronkowski.
He's had enough rides off the field like this with knee, ankle, back and hamstring injuries to last a career. So the Bucs and Rob Gronkowski have to be realistic about their expectations for 2020.
He's had enough rides off the field like this with knee, ankle, back and hamstring injuries to last a career. So the Bucs and Rob Gronkowski have to be realistic about their expectations for 2020.
Published Apr. 22, 2020
Updated Apr. 23, 2020

He has a dent in his leg. Presumably, a few other dings, as well.

This is what happens when you’re shopping for second-hand bargains. You accept there will be imperfections, and you pray there is still a little life in the old clunker.

So whadda you say, Tampa Bay? Think you can ride Rob Gronkowski to the promised land?

In a video chat with reporters on Wednesday, the Bucs pre-owned tight end says his health is good and his enthusiasm is high. But he also acknowledged times have changed and he doesn’t necessarily need to be an every-down player in his return to the NFL.

Good for Gronk.

It was absolutely the right thing to say and the proper way for the Bucs to approach 2020. The guy coming out of retirement is 12 years younger than his quarterback, but there is no comparison between Tom Brady and Gronkowski. Brady’s body has not taken the same abuse, and his position is not as physically demanding.

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There is not a tight end in NFL history who has played at least 100 games and averaged more yards receiving per outing than Gronkowski’s 68.4. Not Tony Gonzalez. Not Antonio Gates. Not Kellen Winslow. But Gronkowski has taken wicked shots from linebackers over the middle, and he has taken on ferocious defensive ends at the line of scrimmage.

At the time he retired 13 months ago, he was a limping example of a sport’s savagery.

So, no, it would be unfair to expect the Gronkowski of yore. He turns 31 in a few weeks, and there have only been three tight ends in the past 50 years to have 1,000 receiving yards in a season at that age.

And, honestly, the Bucs don’t need Gronkowski to be that guy. At least not 16 times a year.

Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are already Pro Bowl-quality receivers. It might be insulting to call a future Hall of Famer such as Gronkowski a complementary player, but that could be his role in Tampa Bay. And that’s probably the smart way to handle the offensive game plan.

For all his glory and highlights in New England, Gronkowski was not Brady’s only option. When the Patriots won the Super Bowl for the 2016 season, Gronkowski missed half the regular season and was New England’s fifth-leading receiver. When they won again for 2018, he was fourth in receiving yards.

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That’s not meant to downplay his accomplishments, but rather to realistically assess his potential contributions. The idea is not to get Gronkowski back in a Pro Bowl uniform, but to get the Bucs back in a Super Bowl parade.

And Gronkowski seems like the rare superstar who understands that thinking.

“When you’re a young buck, you go out there and do what you gotta do. You don’t really know how to take care of your body," Gronkowski said. “But now, being 30 years old, it’s going to be a whole different mindset. It’s going to be a transition that I’ve never done before. The whole focus is going to be taking care of my body and doing the best I can on the football field, not worry and not be distracted by anything else."

The implication is this will be a more mature Gronkowski, less inclined to indulge in the nightlife of a younger man. And he made it clear he had no issue with sharing playing time with Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard (if the latter isn’t traded Thursday night), nor sharing the ball with Evans and Godwin.

So about that dent in his leg?

“I couldn’t walk that well after the last Super Bowl we won because of my quad contusion. I actually still have a little indent from it, too," he laughed. “That’s what I did the last year: I took care of myself, I let my body heal, I let my body rest, I let my body get the treatments it needed. I feel like I broke up all the scar tissue that was in my body, got rid of the inflammation in my body that was holding me back my last year."

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The Bucs didn’t acquire Gronkowski so he could re-live his past. He’s not here for sentimental reasons or a final lap around the field.

They got him because they’re hoping he can still be an elite NFL tight end. Maybe not every down, maybe not every week. But if there’s enough life left in those old bones, it might just be the magic Tampa Bay needs.