Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski have spent the past decade as arguably the scariest connection of the modern NFL era.
After a modest rookie season, Gronk spiked his way to the best season by a tight end in league history in 2011. Injuries stalled a connection that’s unfair at full strength, but the two adapted to the tune of two Super Bowl victories with No. 87 on the field in a Patriots uniform.
But entering 2020, Gronkowski was a year removed from football after deciding to hang it up following a physically devastating championship win against the Rams. It was no guarantee the duo would rekindle the magic that led them to Madden-levels of success through the 2010s.
Those questions were quickly put to rest, with the combo picking up where they left off and continued terrorizing defenses. The parallels between 2020 and 2018 were actually pretty striking, as Gronk thrived in a smaller role than he’d seen in his prime years. Not to mention ending both seasons with a ring.
But how did Brady and Gronkowski’s production and on-field chemistry compare to their 2018 championship run with the Patriots? Did they take an understandable step back? Or somehow surpass expectations after a year hiatus?
I watched all of Gronk’s 2018 and 2020 targets to find out.
What carried over?
Despite playing less due to a lengthy injury history, Gronkowski was a top-three receiving presence for Tom Brady in their last two championship tours.
As the primary in-line “Y” tight end and security blanket for TB12, Gronk continued moving chains, putting up points, and make his presence felt down the middle.
In both Tampa and his final season with New England, the tight end ranked at least third on his team in yards per reception, touchdowns, first downs, and average depth of target.
The duo also relied on most of the same familiar routes and concepts, thriving on crossing routes, up the seams, and occasionally fades with Gronk split out from the formation.
Beyond their clock-work chemistry, there are several traits that allow the Brady-Gronkowski connection to thrive in the twilight of both players’ HOF careers.
For starters, Brady’s ball placement and touch are still among the best in the game, particularly over the middle of the field. He’s got a knack for maximizing even the smaller windows to make life easier for his targets.
He’s also still deadly on play-action because of how deliberate he is with his fakes, patiently showing the defense his back and committing to mesh point before pulling the rock and the defense with it.
Gronk being bigger than everyone defending him is another advantage that hasn’t gone anywhere since 2010. He’s still a bully at the catch point who routinely wins 50-50 opportunities with brute force.
The tight end also knows how to use that strength and power in his routes, fighting through press coverage and using defenders’ physicality against them to create separation.
As similar as Gronk’s role and team impact were between 2018 and 2020, there were also plenty of differences.
Perhaps the most awesome change was 2020 being the second full season of the oft-injured gladiator’s career. He started all 20 games as a Buccaneer after getting leaner under the TB12 Method.
Gronkowski’s improved explosiveness and mobility were reflected in his yards after the catch per reception, which improved by over 1.5 yards. The Bucs also incorporated a healthy dose of Y screens to get him the ball in space.
Gronk was also a more consistent scoring threat under Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich, scoring over twice as many touchdowns.
As impressive as Gronkowski’s first season out of retirement was, he was no slouch in his last year before taking a break from the game.
Taylor Kyles contributes to Sports Illustrated's AllBucs.com, with experience covering the New England Patriots for PatsPulpit.com and on his Patreon. He spent three years as a scouting intern for the Syracuse football program.