TAMPA — Nobody has Tom Brady’s back like Rob Gronkowski. The two have been teammates and friends for more than a decade. So when it was time to assign a player to help protect the blindside of the Bucs’ quarterback, one of the NFL’s greatest pass-catching tight ends was willing to do the dirty work.
Gronkowski didn’t catch a pass in the 31-23 win over Washington during Saturday’s NFC wild-card game. He had only one target in 55 offensive snaps, tying for his fewest this season.
Instead, he made sure that the only way Washington defensive end Chase Young would touch the Bucs’ No. 12 jersey was if Brady fulfilled the rookie’s postgame request to have it mailed to him.
“That’s what he is, he’s a football player,” coach Bruce Arians said of Gronkowski. “He’s not a wide receiver. He does have a lot of stats, but he doesn’t go into a game looking for stats. He’s looking for wins.”
If you want to know why the Bucs are only 60 minutes from the NFC Championship Game, look no further than the selflessness demonstrated by “Gronk.”
He and Brady have combined for 12 postseason touchdown passes, tying them for the most in NFL history with Jerry Rice and Joe Montana.
Brady missed Gronkowski in the end zone on his only chance to catch a pass Saturday.
But the willingness to sacrifice personal goals to win games is what championship teams are all about.
Gronkowski didn’t end his retirement after a year to play football again with Brady. He returned to the game to win again with Brady.
In fact, that kind of buy-in has permeated the Bucs’ entire team this season.
While Gronkowski and left tackle Donovan Smith were limiting Young to no sacks, no pressures and only three tackles Saturday, tight end Cameron Brate was free to roam the field and catch four passes for a season-high 80 yards.
“Rob Gronkowski didn’t have a catch (Saturday) night,” said former NFL offensive lineman Brian Baldinger, who breaks down film and is an analyst for NFL Network. “They threw to him one time. But his blocking was outrageous.
“I mean, they put him one-on-one with Chase Young. I mean, look at this. He’s got the back side of Tom Brady on this play-action. He doesn’t have any help. He’s just running Chase Young all the way around the arc. Brady steps up and throws to Gronk’s counterpart, Cameron Brate, who had big day.”
When a future Pro Football Hall of Fame player like Gronkowski, arguably the greatest tight end to ever play the game, is willing to bury his ego for the good of the team, other players follow suit.
Take running back Leonard Fournette. Signed as a free agent, the do-everything former Jaguars first-round pick expected to supplant Ronald Jones as the Bucs’ primary ball carrier.
Fournette rushed for 103 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-17 win over the Panthers in Week 2. But RoJo stiff-armed anybody who challenged him for the starting job and led the team with 978 yards rushing this season.
It took Fournette much of the season to accept his backup role. The low point was when he was inactive for the Week 14 game against the Vikings.
But when Jones went on the reserve/COVID-19 list and missed two games, Fournette stepped in and played well, scoring three touchdowns in wins over the Falcons and Lions.
Jones returned for the final week of the regular season and rushed 12 times for 78 yards and a touchdown.
Fournette figured he was headed back to his secondary role, but Jones suffered a quad injury that flared up in warmups before Saturday’s game. Fournette responded with what Arians called his “best game of the season.” He rushed 19 times for 93 yards and a touchdown while catching four passes. His 132 total yards from scrimmage are the second-most in Bucs playoff history.
“It was cool, but that’s my job. It’s filling in for ‘Ro,’” Fournette said. “It’s been an up-and-down season for me. I think this year tested my (humility). Coming from being the whole offense to being a minor piece, it’s off and on for me. I just kept faith, and they believed in me. I’m happy where I’m at. I’m happy where I stand.”
You want unselfishness? Receiver Mike Evans was chasing an NFL record to become the only player to start his career with seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and played through hamstring, ankle and knee injuries.
When the Bucs signed Antonio Brown, giving the Bucs another receiver to take targets away from him, Evans buried his ego and accepted the decision because he believed it would help the team win.
One play after Evans set the record against the Falcons in Week 17, he hyperextended his left knee.
Fortunately, there was no ligament damage and Evans led the Bucs with 119 yards receiving Saturday.
Meanwhile, Brown has caught fire and gives the Bucs a matchup nightmare. He has four touchdowns in his last three games.
Speaking of Brown, his reps came at the expense of receiver Scotty Miller, who at one time led the Bucs in receiving after his 109-yard, one-touchdown effort in a win Oct. 25 at Las Vegas.
For that matter, Gronkowski’s arrival signaled a reduced role in the offense for Brate until Saturday.
As Baldinger completed his film study, he marveled at the way Gronkowski epitomized the unselfishness of a superstar willing to do what it takes to win.
“What a night for Gronkowski,” Baldinger said. “Cameron Brate ― catches, yards. Gronk doing the dirty work.”