EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — When he came out of the tunnel some 45 minutes before kickoff, it was the first time Rob Gronkowski had been seen on a football field wearing a Patriots uniform since Jan. 13.
He marked the occasion by accessorizing with a large black sleeve brace on his left arm, hoping to protect the forearm that broke twice in the past 11 months. The injuries led to four surgeries, and were the primary reason the star tight end had missed the first six games this season.
Anyone expecting Gronkowski to be rusty after so much time off would be disappointed. He caught eight passes for a game-high 114 yards, giving Tom Brady the consistently reliable red-zone target the offense has lacked. But Gronkowski couldn’t find the end zone at MetLife Stadium. Worse for Patriots fans, his comeback came in a losing effort, with the Jets taking a 30-27 overtime win.
“It felt good to get back out there with the teammates, fighting with the team, playing hard with the team,” Gronkowski said. “You’ve got to give it to the Jets, they’re a good team, they’ve definitely got a good defense. We’ve just got to make more plays.”
Gronkowski had his chances, with Brady throwing his way 17 times. He caught fewer than half of those, but his arm appeared to hold up. Not counting plays that included a penalty, punts, or field goal attempts, Gronkowski played 48 of 70 offensive snaps.
He absorbed the kind of physical contact that practice wouldn’t provide, giving him his first taste of game action in 10 months. If Gronkowski had any concerns about his health, they were quickly dismissed. He was on the field for the team’s first offensive play, and caught two passes on the Patriots’ first possession.
“It was just really after the first play,” Gronkowski said. “After the first time you get tackled, after the first blocking play, after basically the first play, it felt good. It felt just like normal being out with the teammates and rolling.”
Gronkowski nearly had an opportunity to show off his patented touchdown spike, but was tackled at the Jets’ 1-yard-line after a 30-yard gain in the first quarter. He mainly worked the middle of the field, frequently lining up in the slot.
The production had to please the Patriots, who have struggled in the red zone all season. Even though he didn’t score, the Patriots were 2 for 2 on their red-zone possessions.
“He’s one of the best players in the NFL. You saw what he does today and it was his first game back,” Brady said. “He played his butt off.”
Gronkowski was upset that two of the passes Brady threw him weren’t caught. The first came in the corner of the end zone on third and 3 from the Jets’ 21 early in the fourth quarter, with the Patriots trailing, 27-21. It went over Gronkowski’s head, and looked like it was lost in the sun.
“I didn’t see the ball at all, but that’s not an excuse,” Gronkowski said. “You’ve got to be prepared in situations like that, and I’ve got to do a better job there. It was a nice throw, and it could have potentially been a great play.”
The second definitely would have been a big play. In the final minute of regulation, Gronkowski tried to bring a high Brady pass down one-handed, with open space in front of him. The Patriots trailed by 3. The ball fell to the turf, incomplete. No winning touchdown. That will have to wait another week.
“He ran a great route and we gave him an opportunity,” Brady said. “He makes that 99 out of 100 [times], but it was just one of those days when it doesn’t happen for us.”
Said Gronkowski: “Still mad at myself about that. I had it, I brought it in, and I dropped it.”
Sweat poured down Gronkowski’s face after the game, either from the shower he just took or the bank of cameras and reporters that surrounded him at his locker. For a change, the questions were about catches, near-catches, yards, and first downs, and not the drama that came with weeks of wondering when he’d return.
“You win as a team, you lose as a team,” said Gronkowski, who set a franchise record for a tight end with his 10th game of at least 100 receiving yards. “I’m feeling good. Just got to keep working hard every week, got to keep on improving every week. We’ve got lots to improve on.”