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TARA SULLIVAN

This has been Rob Gronkowski’s strangest, weirdest NFL season so far

Rob Gronkowski caught eight passes for 107 yards and a touchdown against Miami.
Rob Gronkowski caught eight passes for 107 yards and a touchdown against Miami. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

The football world is having some fun at Rob Gronkowski’s expense, replays of his failed attempt to tackle Kenyan Drake comparing him to everything from the Tin Man to an old man. The stumbling run, the awkward angle, and ultimately his last-ditch empty dive at Drake is the defining image of a shocking Patriots loss Sunday in Miami, the prostrate pose of the 6-foot-6-inch behemoth tight end encapsulating everything that went wrong in the Patriots’ hook-and-ladder walkoff meltdown.

The obvious question is why Gronkowski was even out there at all, why the coaching staff elected to insert his height and bulk against a potential Hail Mary pass when it was clear the more pressing need was going to be for experienced tacklers to take down lateral pass catchers. (No need holding your breath for Bill Belichick to provide an answer, just put it on the list behind the still-unsolved Super Bowl benching of Malcolm Butler, or why Tom Brady forgot he had no timeouts before halftime, or why the offense didn’t go for it on fourth down and waste more clock at the end, or how Stephen Gostkowski personally left 4 points on the field.)

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Yet still, it seems only fitting that the strangest, weirdest play in the 34-33 loss would involve Gronkowski, who remains in the midst of his strangest, weirdest NFL season, a minefield of injury and insult that can’t help but make you wonder whether this is his final foray in New England. But no matter what happens next season and beyond, what Sunday’s game also reminded us of is how much the Patriots need the big lug if they want to recover from this loss and make another playoff run.

Gronkowski, targeted eight times Sunday, caught eight passes for 107 yards, adding his first red-zone touchdown of the season and third touchdown overall. It was an effort sure to be overshadowed by the follies at the final whistle, but take that play away and today’s discussion is totally different, focused instead on celebrating the full return of the beautiful Brady-Gronk connection.

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And what better time to remember just how great that connection can be than in the week leading up to a game in Pittsburgh? Who can forget the game this time last year, when Gronkowski nearly beat the Steelers alone, his three catches for 69 yards on a final, game-winning drive highlighting everything that makes him such a ridiculous weapon — his meaty hands, his beefy frame, his unstoppable momentum leaving the Steelers completely unable to stop him?

But unlike last year, when the Patriots used that road win to help cement yet another top seed in the AFC playoff bracket and lay their home-field path to the Super Bowl, this year’s stakes are far more precarious, with New England desperately trying to avoid road playoff games or, even more unthinkable, a wild-card game. That’s the way this season has gone, a bumpy road of ups and downs, of good wins over good teams, of bad losses to bad teams, of road woes that culminated in that shocking final play Sunday.

It was a play that left the man used to delivering punches reduced to a punch line instead.

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Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill didn’t even attempt to disguise his glee at sharing his thoughts as the teams lined up. “Gronk’s on the field! We got this!” he recalled thinking when he saw a defense that included the slow-footed receiver Gronkowski but not the hard-hitting tackler Devin McCourty. They were sentiments his teammates shared as the play unfolded.

“It was me and Gronk, and I couldn’t let Gronk tackle me,” Drake told reporters after the game. “Look, sorry Gronk, he’s a great player but I got somewhere to be.”

Said Gronk: “Just the way it ended, I mean, it sucked. I’ve never really been a part of anything like that. I feel like it’s going to test our character big-time, how we bounce back from something like that, and I’ve just got to make that tackle.”

Drake made it to the end zone instead, but even if he did it ultimately at Gronkowski’s expense, the Dolphins running back wasn’t wrong about the Gronk-being-great part. As strange as this season has been, as bruised and battered as Gronkowski has been from his back to his ankle to his Achilles’ tendon, as awkward as it has been to hear Belichick almost traded him and how he personally nixed the potential deal to Detroit, and as much as those outside of New England have delighted in describing his inevitable demise, Gronkowski remains as big a part of this ongoing run of dominance as anyone not named Brady.

So maybe it wasn’t all that surprising to go back to an offseason that saw him standing in solidarity with Brady by skipping voluntary team workouts, and of course it’s nothing unusual to see his endless, boundless, childlike glee in celebrating while the horse named Gronk crashed the Belmont Stakes.

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Of course he should be allowed time for a personal journey of introspection that ultimately saw him decide he wasn’t quite ready for the retirement line, just as his body must be allowed the time from Weeks 7 to 12 to be on the inactive list while recovering from the various injuries his bruising, physical style of play has brought over the years.

But put it all together, and no doubt about it, this year has been stranger than most. And that image of Gronkowski at the end of the game, so out of place and so out of gas, diving for air as Drake sprinted into the end zone, that one feels perfectly symbolic to capture it.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.