TAMPA — It didn’t happen the way it was depicted in that T-Mobile commercial. The one where Tom Brady seems to be contemplating joining Rob Gronkowski in retirement before their signal gets crossed.
One minute Gronkowski is on a golf course and the next he’s asking his mom to find his football pants.
The irony of that TV spot is that Brady and Gronkowski have never had a poor connection.
In fact, it’s their clairvoyant synergy on the field that continues to confound opponents late into their careers.
“I don’t remember exactly how it all went down. I don’t remember exactly how things played out with that,” Brady said of the Bucs trading for Gronkowski’s rights with the Patriots to reunite the dynamic duo in Tampa Bay.
“I’m just happy he decided that he wanted to come out of retirement. Obviously, playing together with him is just awesome for me. When I chose the Buccaneers, I wasn’t sure if he was going to come out of retirement or if he wanted to play, but it’s been amazing to watch him perform. He’s obviously the greatest tight end to ever play the game and he’s still doing it.”
In the first two games this season, Gronkowski caught four touchdowns from Brady, two each against the Cowboys and Falcons to build on his pair of scores in Super Bowl 55.
Then came the devastating injuries in the Week 3 loss to the Rams when Gronkowski fractured four ribs and punctured his lung after taking a hit in the back from linebacker Terrell Lewis.
He played six snaps at New Orleans on Oct. 31 before leaving with back spasms. At 32, having missed all or parts of six games with injuries, it seemed unlikely Gronk would be much of a factor in the offense again this season.
But since the tight end returned three weeks ago against the Giants, it has been a vintage Brady-to-Gronk show.
In the past three games, Gronkowski has 17 receptions for 252 yards and two touchdowns, both coming in last week’s 30-17 win at Atlanta.
At 43, Brady leads the NFL in passing yards (3,771) and touchdowns (34) while leading the Bucs to a 9-3 start and four-game lead in the NFC South with five games to play.
But as good as Brady has been, the Bucs have been even better when Gronkowski is on the field. Excluding the loss to New Orleans where he managed a half-dozen snaps, the Bucs are 5-1 when their Canton-bound tight end plays and 4-2 when he doesn’t this season.
Gronkowski took over the Bucs’ win at Indianapolis on Nov. 28, catching seven passes for a team-high 123 yards, and he blocked for Leonard Fournette’s four touchdowns.
Last Sunday at Atlanta, Gronkowski lined up to Brady’s left and gets jammed at the line of scrimmage before running an over route, beating a safety for a 27-yard touchdown.
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But it was late in the game where that Brady-Gronk non-verbal communication doomed the Falcons. Split wide to Brady’s right in obvious man coverage by Falcons safety Erik Harris, Gronkowski ran a fade route and caught a pass in the end zone for his second touchdown of the game.
It was the 90th touchdown between Brady and Gronkowski, second only to the Colts’ Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison (112).
Gronkowski says the chemistry wasn’t always there with Brady. When he was a rookie from Arizona in 2010, Gronkowski said Brady was mean to him.
“It was intentional,” said Brady, laughing. “I had to try to toughen him up a little bit. I’ve got to see what I’m working with, you know? Kids have it easy these days. We’ve got to try to challenge them a little bit.”
Of course, no team is more familiar with Brady-to-Gronk than the Bills. Brady’s record is an astounding 32-3 against the Bills, with 68 touchdowns and 21 interceptions during the 18 seasons he was the Patriots starter between 2001-19. One of those losses came in Week 17 of 2014, when the Patriots had locked up home-field advantage and Brady played only the first half.
Gronkowski has had success against the Bills, too, with 12 touchdowns in 15 games.
This Bills team (7-5), however, lost in the AFC Championship game last season and is coming off a difficult loss to New England on Monday night.
Currently, they own the No. 1 pass defense in the league, allowing 165 passing yards per game. But the Patriots attempted only three passes Monday night and the Bills have lost cornerback Tre’Davious White to a season-ending injury.
Growing up with his four brothers in Amherst, N.Y., just outside of Buffalo, the Bills were always Gronk’s team.
“(I grew up) 25 minutes from the stadium,” Gronkowski said. “Whenever I was in the backyard with my friends, my brothers and I, if you line up wide, you’re always pretending that you’re the receiver that they had. I was Eric Moulds, that was always my favorite player. If you made a stop or a big hit, you were acting like you were Takeo Spikes. The history of the Buffalo Bills goes way back with my family.”
Gronkowski’s father, Gordie, didn’t think his son would return to football. “The bottom line? Rob is back in my opinion because of Tom Brady. I mean, Tom called him and Tom got in his ear and I’m sure Rob probably didn’t go out the way he wanted to.”
It wasn’t the poor 5G that got Robbie G back to the NFL.
“So much about football is anticipating what the problems will be as opposed to trying to figure out how to solve the problem after the play,” Brady said. “I think a lot of it is solving the problem before things happen. Gronk knows what I’m thinking. I know what he’s thinking. We’ve just done it so long together. It’s really nice. It’s a great luxury.”
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