• At 29 years old Gronkowski’s body is starting to show the toll of his physical style of play, but the TE’s blocking ability—and the fact that he still draws at least one top defender when he’s on the field—keeps him on the field for the Patriots when he’s healthy.
By Conor Orr
November 25, 2018

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Rob Gronkowski emerged from the south end tunnel at Met Life Stadium with about 45 minutes left until kickoff of the Patriots Week 12 game against the Jets. His left arm was still wrapped in that brace that looks to be as thick as a wool blanket. He sputtered toward a three-man blocking drill with Jacob Hollister and James Develin, doling out high-fives along the way.

This jogging in starts and stops seems to just be a part of Gronkowski’s football life now—movement similar to an aging rock star who is still capable of packing arenas, but who looks like he might benefit from some comfortable orthopedic shoes.

After almost a month on the sidelines with ankle and back issues, Gronkowski’s return to the field on Sunday was fruitful. He played more than 30 consecutive offensive snaps to start the game without a breather. He caught a 34-yard touchdown pass that saw him beat a Jets linebacker, Avery Williamson, in coverage and tuck the ball away before Morris Claiborne came over to deliver a shot. His final line was three catches on seven targets for 56 yards in the Patriots’ 27–13 win.

But it also had the look of something that lacked sustainability. Gronkowski is still an incredible, fluid athlete. Like only the rarest players in their respective sports, his combination of size, speed, power and footwork is unparalleled.

A closer look into his daily responsibilities shows a player who should have ran out of gas years ago. If a receiver’s in-game workout is akin to that of an Olympic sprinter and an offensive lineman’s is like a professional weightlifter, Gronkowski is something of a cross-fit savant. When he’s on the field, the Patriots may not even know how much they benefit from his presence thanks to the myriad roles he takes on. Certainly, they can feel it when he’s not healthy.

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“I’ve just been putting the work in the last couple of weeks, whatever it was, to get back and now I just feel like I can keep on improving week-in, week-out now and do what I have to do to help the team,” he said afterward. “It felt good to be back out there and it was a good win overall.”

Consider the following: 

• On Sunday, by an unofficial count, Gronkowski was the critical blocker on a running play 13 times, meaning that the play hinged on his ability as a lead blocker.

• He ran two deep routes that cleared out a section of the field for either Julian Edelman or Chris Hogan to make wide-open catches by drawing a top-tier defender. By my count, he ran four routes of at least 20 yards, and stayed in for the next play.

• On at least two plays, he was a lead blocker or decoy in a sweep play that forced him to cross the line like a pulling guard.

“When he’s out there, it’s great for our offense,” Tom Brady said. “I don’t want to minimize his importance. He’s a great player.”

On the sideline, he grabbed for the oxygen mask. On some plays, he turfed his defender like a seasoned offensive tackle, and on others, he walked back to the bench, hands on hips, like he was run out of the gym in a game of pickup hoops. He was blasted by Jamal Adams on the team’s first third down, providing a rare instance where a stadium full of people could see him knocked down backwards onto his backside.

And yet, he was back on the next drive as bullish as ever. In Gronkowski, on nearly every play, you can see the player that Bill Belichick wanted to trade this offseason, and the one who he still starts every week he’s healthy because it’s a necessity. If the end is near, there will still be plenty of reasons to watch along the way.  

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