This might seem like the wrong time to say this, considering Rob Gronkowski is coming off what might have been his worst performance in nine seasons as a Patriot.
I say there isn’t a better time to say this.
Don’t give up on Gronk.
Not yet, not now, and not without a few more shots at redemption for the most likable superstar they have ever had.
You know, and I know too, that it doesn’t look good. I’m not pretending that it does. The circumstantial evidence is not on my side. The most physically dominating tight end ever to play has sometimes looked like a shell casing of his former self, even though he is not yet 30 years old.
At his peak, Gronkowski wasn’t so much a force of nature; it was that he defied nature, dominating not just with his size and physicality, but with horse-escaping-the-barn speed that was unfair for a player so huge. Now, he’s practically plodding. He looks like he’s working harder than ever to shake the defense, and yet the only time he’s moved slower is when he played in a Super Bowl with a damaged ankle.
Gronkowski delivered a quintessentially terrific season in 2017, catching 69 passes for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns in 14 games. But coach Bill Belichick, never shy about trading a player before his slippage becomes apparent to those of us lacking his perceptiveness, tried to trade him to the Lions. Maybe this isn’t all new after all.
This much we do know: Sunday felt like a low point. For just the fourth time in his career — and the third time in which he’d played the full game — Gronkowski did not have a catch. He was targeted three times, and one of those targets went through his hands and turned into a Bills interception. If he’s had a worse game, I don’t remember it.
Gronkowski’s struggles are not as jarring as watching Ben Coates’s skills abandon him all at once during the 1999 season, but it is disheartening, if only because Gronk’s dominance — and the joie de vivre with which it was delivered — has been a pure pleasure for Patriots fans.
You miss it, and it’s sad to wonder whether we’ll see it again, especially when the player himself seems to be wondering the same thing.
But that does not mean we should abandon hope that he’ll contribute in all those significant ways before this season is done.
Mark my words: He has big plays in big moments to come.
His statistics (45 catches, 658 yards, 3 touchdowns) are fine. He’s sixth in receiving yards among tight ends despite missing three games, and among tight ends with at least 30 catches, only the Niners’ George Kittle, the Bucs’ O.J. Howard, and the Ravens’ Mark Andrews are averaging more yards per reception.
He’s still a valuable receiver, and he was prominent as a blocker as the Patriots ran up 273 rushing yards Sunday.
The defining image of the Patriots’ 34-33 loss to the Dolphins two weeks ago was of Gronkowski, playing last-line-of-defense safety on the expected Hail Mary coverage team for some silly reason, lumbering hopelessly to cut off the Dolphins’ Kenyon Drake before he could reach the end zone.
What’s overlooked is that Gronkowski, when playing his normal position, was a relative dynamo in that game, with eight catches on eight targets for 107 yards and a touchdown.
Again, that was just two weeks ago. And now he’s cooked? C’mon. Not even 1989 Jim Rice lost his skills that fast.
There does seem to be an eagerness, especially in the national media, to declare Gronkowski finished. A Google search of his name Monday morning yielded headlines such as “One Play Shows How Far Rob Gronkowski Has Fallen” and “The End Has Never Looked Closer For Rob Gronkowski.”
Then there was Rodney Harrison on NBC’s Football Night in America studio show: “I’ve never seen Rob Gronkowski look like this. I’ve never seen Tom Brady look like this. I’m really worried about the New England Patriots.”
Maybe there’s a reason to be, though that has to do with the mysterious condition of the 41-year-old quarterback’s knee more than anything else. But we also know this: Harrison said that on a good day for the Patriots, one in which the Patriots moved into position for the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff race, and he said it a couple of hours before the No. 1 seed, the Chiefs, lost.
The Patriots’ season has been a grind, and yet they’re 7-0 at home and should be where they need to be in the final playoff seedings. Securing a first-round bye is more essential than ever, especially if you believe, as I do, that Gronkowski is not done, cooked, or washed up, but instead has been dealing with back and ankle injuries that are more serious than we know.
The break might do his body some good. And if he’s frustrated, he certainly sounded after Sunday’s game that his mind is right.
“I’m on Year 9 now. I’ve been in games where we just run the ball the whole game, and it’s working,’’ he said. “So I’ll just tell you this: Whatever it takes to win the game is what we’re doing.”
Before this is over, the Patriots are going to need Gronkowski to make some of those old familiar plays in the passing game to win a game, and maybe more than once.
I’ve seen him do it too many times before — even this season, or have we forgotten about the Chiefs game, too? — to bet against him when he’s down.