FOXBOROUGH — Rob Gronkowski felt one Texans defender pawing at him and knew there was another on his flank. He ran down the seam with 1:05 left in the second quarter Sunday and, to his surprise, peeked back and saw Tom Brady throwing his way.
“I had two guys on me,” Gronkowski said, laughing, after the game. “When I saw the ball in the air I literally thought first thing, ‘What is Tom thinking?’ ”
If Brady was thinking about all the years together, all the plays he and Gronkowski have managed to pull off and figuring that, yeah, the tight end could find a way to nab this particular ball for 28 yards, too, then he thought right.
Gronkowski leaped, reached and caught the ball, according to the officials on the field. It was part of a seven-catch, 123-yard, one touchdown day for the tight end.
“Rob and I, we’ve been playing together for a long time,” said Brady. “I remember a couple years ago we threw like in April one year, we threw like 40 passes and hit them all. I know his body language, I know his ability to run and what routes he can do.”
Brady also knew that, though the catch looked impressive, it was borderline. The quarterback ran the offense to the line of scrimmage and got the next play off quickly, before the officials could initiate a review.
Gronkowski said he was sure he had the ball “stable in my hand” when he went to the ground, but Texans coach Bill O’Brien was upset it wasn’t reviewed. Since there were less than two minutes remaining in the half, O’Brien couldn’t challenge it.
A timely hot microphone captured referee Tony Corrente’s response to O’Brien’s complaint.
“We ran a play. We ran a play before you came to me,” Corrente said.
O’Brien did have the option of calling a timeout, which he either didn’t think of or didn’t want to do. Calling a timeout would have been a calculated risk with the hope that the officials would initiate a review if given more time.
It would have worked, though O’Brien couldn’t have known that at the time. Corrente told a pool reporter after the game that NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron told the crew in Foxborough to review the play, but gave the word too late, after the Patriots had gotten the next play off.
“They got to us on the field but the play had already developed. It had started,” Corrente said.
O’Brien said it’s the responsibility of the officials and the league control center in New York to get review calls in on time.
“That’s not my job, though, to call a timeout to make their job easier,” O’Brien said.
While technically true, O’Brien still had an opportunity to help his team and didn’t use it.
It might just have been Gronkowski’s day. The catch before the half, which was part of a touchdown drive, was not his only impressive reception of the day against double coverage.
Gronkowski accounted for the first touchdown of the Patriots season three minutes and 10 seconds into the game, when he and Brady connected on third and 12 from the Texans’ 21.
Gronkowski lined up outside the numbers to Brady’s left on that play, ran vertically to the end zone, and swiveled his hips at the pylon to nab the touchdown in front of two Houston defenders.
He finished it off with a spike and a dance, as usual.
All this happened a few hours after an NFL Network report that Gronkowski had stopped a potential trade this spring by telling the Patriots he’d retire from football if they sent him somewhere else, and that he was only willing to play in New England with Brady.
“I was wondering why they asked me that on the field right after the game,” Gronkowski chuckled. “I was like, ‘Where is this coming from again?’ No, I’m just glad to be here, glad to be part of this team, glad to be part of this organization.
“All that talk, all that stuff, I mean I would love to put it in the past, whatever it is, whatever reports keep coming out. Because I’m here and I’m here to stay and I’m here to keep playing ball with the Patriots and just enjoying my time here.”
In part, Gronkowski contributed to that chatter when he skipped optional workouts this spring and summer. It was easy to wonder if the missed reps might mean a slower start to his year in 2018.
The easiest way to quiet all that and put it behind him? Perform on the field. So far, so good.