EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — There’s Rob Gronkowski, and then there’s Gronk, and the Patriots knew which one made the trip to New Jersey at 1:32 p.m. Sunday when the big tight end ran 34 yards up the seam, caught Tom Brady’s pass and burst through double-coverage into one of his favorite places: the end zone.
“He’s the Gronk,” Julian Edelman said. “It’s always good to have him back.”
Back playing for the first time in 27 days, having missed three of the last four Patriots games with back and ankle injuries. Back to scoring and to Gronk-spiking for the first time since Week 1. Back to working the middle of the field the way he did on the touchdown, the way the Patriots ask him to when they’re confident they’ve got the old Gronk out there, perhaps the best sign of several good ones from the returning player’s performance in New England’s 27-13 win.
“I saw him get by the middle linebacker and I saw the corner squeeze in and I threw it,” Brady said. “I didn’t really see the end of the play. I heard the cheering. I wasn’t sure if [the Jets] intercepted it or if we made the play. I was so happy Gronk made it.”
“It’s middle of the field,” Gronkowski said. “I know there’s always a chance when it’s third and long that if it is open it’s going to come to you. I know Tom is always going to throw that one if it’s open, and you just never know until you run it.”
It was funny the way Brady and Gronkowski talked about that play, calling Gronkowski open in the same breath as they mentioned the multiple defenders who were nearby. Gronkowski ran through Jets cornerback Morris Claiborne as he crossed the goal line with linebacker Avery Williamson in pursuit.
“I think those are certain ones where Gronk is probably the only tight end in the league that can make that play,” Brady said.
In addition to the touchdown, Gronkowski caught three of seven targets for 56 yards. His block also helped Edelman reach the end zone in the third quarter, and he was helpful to the run game and in protection. Brady was able to spread the ball around Sunday in part because of the attention Gronkowski commanded. The tight end rarely came off the field.
Gronkowski’s catch rate was hurt by Brady’s decision to force the ball his way on pair of fades in the end zone. They were low-percentage plays that Gronkowski had little chance of catching through tight coverage.
His primary defender was Jets safety Jamal Adams. He laid a fierce hit on Gronkowski on third and 10 in the first quarter that forced a drop and a punt and set the tone. Gronkowski also needed to play defensive back on a pass in the end zone toward the end of the second quarter that, if he hadn’t had that good awareness, Adams probably could have intercepted. They yapped back and forth, and though he got plenty of help, Adams was a worthy adversary. By the same token, it was a meaningful test of Gronkowski’s health and readiness.
“It felt good just to be back out there with the guys, just grinding, coming out here in New York and just putting a good win together,” Gronkowski said.
He’d just come into the visiting team’s interview room, arriving right as Devin McCourty was finishing up his question-and-answer session with reporters. As Gronkowski dipped his head underneath the door frame, someone asked McCourty how it felt to have his teammate back on the field.
“He’s always awesome. He gets good work. We lock him down all week and then he shows up on Sunday,” McCourty said, grinning at Gronkowski while ceding the podium.
Gronkowski giggled his high-pitched giggle. Another reporter asked if the defense really shuts him down in practice.
“Sometimes, but not the majority,” Gronkowski answered.
He had his hands on either side of the podium and shook it. It was a little wobbly.
“This is going to break up here. You built this thing, Stacey [James]?” Gronkowski, joking, asked the Patriots vice president of media relations.
It didn’t really make sense. The Patriots head spokesman obviously did not build the podium. Everyone was laughing anyway. That’s how it goes with Gronk.
“He looked like he was having fun, and that’s awesome,” Edelman said. “That’s what we want.”
Even if Rob Gronkowski plays every game left on the Patriots schedule, Gronk is week-to-week. That’s just how it is now after the latest round of injuries. Adams’s hit that laid Gronkowski on his back in the first quarter was gasp-inducing, even if it wasn’t remotely out of the ordinary by NFL standards. The Patriots offense looked stalled without him over the last few weeks, and Gronkowski himself seemed frustrated with his touchdown drought and persistent injuries.
So take Gronk when you can get him, especially when you can get him over the middle and in the end zone, just as the Patriots did Sunday.
Nora Princiotti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @NoraPrinciotti.