The Tampa Bay Buccaneers officially turned their 2020 season into a giant party this past week when they traded for Rob Gronkowski. With Tom Brady and Gronk coming aboard the big pirate ship, the Bucs are selling jerseys, selling season tickets, and dreaming about playing in next year’s Super Bowl at their home stadium.
There’s just one big question: What kind of Gronk are the Bucs getting?
He’s no longer the mid-2010s, All-Pro Gronk. He’ll be 31 in May, has a lengthy injury history, has lost about 15 pounds from his playing weight, and hasn’t played in a football game since February 2019.
On a media call Wednesday, Gronkowski acknowledged that coming back this year could be a challenge. He said one reason he un-retired now, five months before the season (in theory), was that he knew he needed the time to get back into football shape.
“Probably going to be a bigger challenge taking a year off and coming back,” he said. “But I’ve been staying active, staying busy, not necessarily with football stuff, but I’ve been keeping up my cardio, I’ve been keeping up staying in shape.
"But the mind-set is going to have to change now that I’m going to be playing again, and it’s time to start preparing.”
But Gronkowski may just be staying humble and motivating himself. Matt Bowen, a seven-year NFL safety who now is an X’s-and-O’s expert at ESPN, believes the year off will suit him well.
“I would expect Gronk to come back and to be ready to improve his game speed and maybe even play at a faster clip,” Bowen said. “I think a lot of guys in the NFL would have loved to have a year off — a year off to rest your body, change your body, having a year with not being in the training room consistently.”
Gronk certainly seems to be feeling much better now than he did at the end of his nine-year Patriots tenure last spring. He was completely worn down by a career filled with surgeries on his back, knee, and forearm. And he suffered a quad contusion in his final game that kept him from walking for nearly a month; he said he still has the dent in his leg nearly 15 months later.
But a year away from football, doing mostly yoga and cardio, has him in a better place physically and mentally.
“I let my body rest and get the treatments that it needed,” Gronkowski said. “I feel like I broke up all the scar tissue in my body, got rid of the inflammation in my body that was holding me back my last year, I felt like, and it feels good.
"Going forward, I definitely feel like this is an opportunity to play the game of football and play a whole season the real way that it’s supposed to be played. I’m excited for that opportunity, and I’m excited to see how I hold up and how I can play throughout a whole season taking care of myself.”
And Gronkowski isn’t worried about putting back on his football weight. He said he currently weighs 250 pounds, and his playing weight is 260-265.
“To put on 10 pounds to get to 260 I think will be pretty easy,” he said. “It just takes a couple extra protein shakes, some extra almond butter, some extra blueberries. You just got to load it up.”
Gronk saying he wants to play football “the real way that it’s supposed to be played” is an interesting comment. Even though he is older and his body has taken many hits, don’t assume the Bucs are going to simply flex Gronkowski outside and essentially turn him into a receiver.
He was always known as a true three-down player and one of the best blocking tight ends in the league, and Bowen expects him to be used similarly in Bruce Arians’s offense.
“I expect Gronk to be that guy that creates an extra gap in the run game, can block down, can reach block, and can also threaten as a pass catcher,” Bowen said. “I would think in Tampa you’re going to see a lot of one- and two-back play-action, with Gronk running a straight seam, or a crosser across the field.
"And in specific situations, you’ll see them isolate Gronk. They’ll flex him out, to get the matchup outside.”
Gronkowski said he is ready to be the Gronk of old, if that’s what the Bucs ask of him.
“The name Gronk means I’m down for anything on the football field,” he said. “If they need me to block, I’m down to block. If they need me to spread out wide, I’ll spread out wide.
"I’m going to give it my all, no matter how many plays, if it’s 60 percent or 100 percent of the plays. I’m down for whatever. Nothing’s set in stone at all yet.”
And the year away from football probably won’t affect Gronkowski as much as it would other players, because he’s coming back to play with the only quarterback he has known in his nine-year career. When Brady and Gronkowski threw together at UCLA last July, they had the whole practice routine down cold.
“We have a great chemistry out there, and every time we get together, it’s just like the old days,” said Gronkowski, who caught 78 of his 79 career touchdown passes from Brady. “It doesn’t matter if we take a month off or six months apart, we just go out there and we’re throwing the ball like it’s a normal practice.”
The Bucs also don’t need Gronk to be their No. 1 target. With 1,000-yard receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin taking up attention on the outside, Gronk just needs to work the middle of the field and make a few plays.
“I don’t think he’s going to come back and be Travis Kelce and George Kittle,” Bowen said. “But can he come back and have an impact? Yeah. Can he come back and catch 50 passes, seven touchdowns, go for 600 yards? I think it’s pretty fair to expect something like that.
"It’s setting up for a situation where you could see a big boost in Brady’s numbers, as well.”
The Bucs are also getting a motivated Gronk — and that could be a scary Gronk.
“When I get there, I want to show my talents, for sure,” he said. “I want to show that I can go up the seam. I want to show that I can run an out route and in-cut.
"I want to show that I can do what I’ve been doing my whole career — especially how I was when I was in the prime of going out there and making big things happen.”
TAKING A CHANCE ON LOVE
Packers make bold move at QB
The more I thought about the Packers’ decision to draft Jordan Love with the 26th pick Thursday, the more I loved the move (no pun intended). That is, as long as the Packers believe that Aaron Rodgers is slowing down, and that he has only a year or at most two left with the team.
This was no easy decision by general manager Brian Gutekunst and coach Matt LaFleur. Rodgers, who turned 36 in December, is beloved by Packer Nation and considered one of the best quarterbacks of his generation. Taking a quarterback in the first round sends a clear message that his time may be coming to an end. And this pick possibly alienates a large portion of the locker room that wants to win now and build off last year’s NFC Championship game appearance.
No one knows whether Love can actually play. But drafting a young QB is the kind of tough, bold, and forward-thinking move that is often necessary to build a sustained winner in the NFL. Even if Love is a bust, you have to respect the Packers for identifying the need and having the gumption to go for it, no matter how many people it upset.
“I was shocked just like anybody else,” ESPN’s Rex Ryan said Friday morning. “You’re one game away from a Super Bowl, so to me it’s like, ‘Let’s go for it right now. Let’s get Aaron Rodgers some weapons.’ Instead they do the opposite. It was a move by Matt LaFleur that took a lot of courage, so hats off to him.”
The Packers certainly aren’t wrong to start thinking about the future. Rodgers, entering his 16th season, saw his numbers dip across the board last year in LaFleur’s first year as head coach: 12th in the league in passer rating (95.4), 21st in completion percentage (62.0), and 17th in yards per attempt (7.0).
Rodgers butted heads with LaFleur over the new offensive system, and the Packers finished just 15th in points and 18th in total offense.
Now they bring in Love, though it certainly won’t be to play in 2020. He supposedly is a raw prospect, and the Packers are set up to let him sit and learn for at least a year.
This was also a great move for the Packers because it didn’t cost them a whole lot. Though the Packers traded up from 30 to 26 to draft him, it cost only the 136th pick (a late fourth-rounder). Love was widely considered the last first-round quarterback, and trading a fourth-rounder to get him is a small price to pay.
Love comes cheap, too. He will sign a four-year contract worth about $12.5 million-$13 million, plus a fifth-year option. The top backup quarterbacks are making $7 million-$8 million per year, so Love won’t be burning a hole in the Packers’ pocket. Plus, having a fifth year of control is key. Had the Packers drafted a quarterback in the second round or later, he would have gotten a four-year contract.
Drafting Love certainly calls into question how much longer the Packers want Rodgers as their quarterback. They famously sat Rodgers for three years before saying goodbye to Brett Favre.
But that was an extreme case. Since Rodgers was drafted in 2005, only two of 40 first-round quarterbacks didn’t become the starter within two seasons: Brady Quinn and Paxton Lynch, both of whom were busts. Not since Philip Rivers, drafted in 2004, has a first-round quarterback prospect sat and learned for two full years before taking over.
Rodgers’s contract certainly complicates matters. He is signed through 2023 and will make $73 million over his final three seasons. If the Packers trade him in the 2021 offseason, they will have to deal with $31.5 million in dead salary-cap money in 2021. If they trade him in 2022, he will have a more manageable $17.2 million in dead cap dollars.
Or the Packers could keep Rodgers for at least three more years, and make Love sit and wait. That would be the only reason not to like the pick. Then it becomes a Jimmy Garoppolo situation, where the asset rots on the bench.
The Packers didn’t have to make this move in 2020. While drafting Love could light a fire under Rodgers and coax him to a better performance, it also could sabotage the team’s relationship with its star quarterback. Plus, 36 isn’t over the hill for a quarterback anymore. And young quarterbacks don’t usually need several years of seasoning, either. The Packers easily could have waited a year or two.
But they took their shot. And they did it knowing it would likely upset their star quarterback, and many of their fans.
And now the clock is ticking on Rodgers’s tenure in Green Bay.
Broncos briefly slipped off-line
Thursday night’s first round of the draft went off almost to perfection. The broadcast didn’t have any noticeable glitches. The technology didn’t fail. And hackers didn’t break in.
But not everyone had a perfect night. Broncos coach Vic Fangio said his Internet and cable TV went out about five minutes before the draft started.
“Not the power," he said. “All the Internet, my TV wasn’t working, everything froze up.”
But Fangio had a team IT executive stationed at his house, and they got everything fixed up long before the Broncos drafted at 15.
“Other than that, it actually went pretty smoothly,” Broncos boss John Elway said.
The NFL is looking extra smart for waiting until around May 9 to release the 2020 schedule, about three weeks later than usual. But this idea was in the works well before COVID-19 hit, and even without the pandemic, it’s a good one. It never made much sense to release the schedule in mid-April before the draft, because the draft changes everything. The Dolphins are a much more fascinating team now that Tua Tagovailoa is the quarterback. Same with the Chargers and Justin Herbert. Now with the later release date, the NFL can ensure that it has the best lineup of games in the prime-time windows … Tom Brady appeared on the NFL’s fund-raising telethon before Thursday night’s first round along with Deion Sanders, Russell Wilson, Kevin Hart, and other celebrities, and threw a big bucket of ice water on the hype of the draft. “There’s a lot of buildup, and really whoever gets drafted, there’s been so few guys over the years that come to the Patriots that made a sudden impact,” Brady said. “A lot of those guys have a lot of work ahead. The reality is none of those guys have accomplished anything yet.” Brady also seems to be enjoying his new life in Florida, saying he already bought a couple of Jet Skis and is looking into buying a boat. “I didn’t realize moving to Florida would cost me money,” he joked … Meanwhile, the fund-raising golf match featuring Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Peyton Manning, and Brady should be great entertainment, with Brady teaming up with Mickelson. Woods is a big Raiders fan, so there should be plenty of Tuck Rule smack talk … Titans coach Mike Vrabel on the bizarre scene at his house shown on the ESPN draft telecast, which included one of his sons wearing a costume from “The Incredibles,” and another son appearing to be going to the bathroom (he wasn’t): “It’s been a long quarantine over here, man. We’ve got a bunch of 19- and 18-year-old kids and you know, they’re stir-crazy.”
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.