We don’t know how physically ready new Bucs tight end Rob Gronkowski is as he reunites with Tom Brady. We don’t know how his body and mind will respond after a year out of the league, let alone how they’ll respond to another season’s worth of poundings. Nor do we know how much he’ll be able to contribute to his new team, especially if the coronavirus pandemic dramatically alters offseason workouts.
But we do know there is at least one historical precedent of a big-bodied, powerful tight end making a successful comeback after a brief retirement: Jason Witten.
Witten made 11 Pro Bowls and caught 68 touchdowns in 239 games with the Cowboys from 2003-17 before retiring and becoming a broadcaster on Monday Night Football.
But after a one-year break — like Gronkowski — Witten wanted back.
“When you take this challenge to go back, really the risk is on me, you know?” Witten told ESPN last summer. "If I’m not any good, you see it all the time — guys come back and sign up, and by the end of training camp, they retire before they’re cut. We know it’s a young man’s game. We know you’ve got to be able to go out there and do it. I feel like I’ve always held myself to a really high standard of what it takes to play well day in and day out, and I was confident that I can go do that.”
And he did, at age 37 Witten caught 63 passes — third on the team and eighth-most among all NFL tight ends — and scored on four of them. His 529 yards and 27 first downs were comparable to his 2017 Pro Bowl season (560 yards, 26 first downs), and the 6.4 yards per target were identical.
That doesn’t mean Gronkowski, who turns 31 next month, will have Witten-like success in his comeback. But if the newest ex-Pat needs any sort of inspiration, he’ll know where to look.