Gronk is back. Here’s why that might not be a good thing in Tampa Bay…
In a move that shocked absolutely no one who has ever heard of professional football, lived in the northeastern part of the country, or watched The Masked Singer, future Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski announced his un-retirement and facilitated a trade to Tampa Bay to join Tom Brady. On its face, it seems like it might be a great idea. It’s the kind of move that can put the Buccaneers over the top if the Brady-Gronk combo delivers. After all, the Brady to Gronk connection was the lifeblood of the New England offense for years. How good were they, really? How about the best connection in recent NFL history, per Pro Football Focus. Better than Brees to Thomas in their record-setting run? Yup. Better than Rodgers to Jordy Nelson? Matty Ice to Julio? Big Ben to A.B.? Yup. Yup. Yup. Brady’s passer rating was an unsurpassed 129.6 when looking for the big tight end. Sounds great, right? So, on the surface it makes sense to lure the soon-to-be 31-year-old tight end out of retirement for one last rodeo.
But there’s a catch.
No pun intended.
Brady has been VERY reliant on Gronk when he’s available. And he hasn’t played nearly as well when his favorite target is missing due to injury. Brady’s accuracy drops from 65% to around 60%. His yards per attempt plummets from just under 8 YPA to 6.9 YPA, and worst of all, his TD-INT ratio drops from 4.6-1 to 2.3-1. Yes. Tom Brady threw twice as many interceptions on average, when Gronk wasn’t on the field. To simplify, Brady is the GOAT with Gronk, and barely above average without him. We’ve all seen the footage of Brady screaming at teammates on the sidelines in frustration when a receiver breaks wrong, or just isn’t on the same page. Guess how many times that was in a game that Gronk missed.
That’s why there’s a very real danger that this could all backfire terribly for Tampa Bay. It’s not far-fetched. Gronk hasn’t played a sixteen-game season since 2011. The chances of him coming out of retirement and navigating a full season are virtually nil.
And that’s where the problem arises. What will Tampa Bay’s offense look like when Gronkowski gets hurt, or isn’t available?
Brady amassed his Hall of Fame statistics with group after group of relatively unknown pass catchers and few elite-level receivers for one simple reason. For Brady, it’s not about the overall objective quality of the receiver. It’s about whether they’re on the same page. Famously, Brady’s slot receivers (Wes Welker, and more recently, Julian Edelman) and Gronk have known when to change or break off routes based on coverages and more importantly, their knowledge of what Brady expects them to do in those situations. Brady expects this sort of high-football-IQ group think from his targets. Make no mistake. Tampa Bay’s long and speedy receiving corps will probably be one of the most athletically gifted that Brady has ever played with. Textbook receivers like the ones in Tampa Bay are great as vertical threats, but if they drop a pass in a high leverage situation, or don’t run routes (or break routes) the way Brady expects, he won’t look their way again for the rest of the game…or ever. The reason Brady almost never utilizes rookie pass catchers when the game is on the line is simple. He just doesn’t trust them yet. So, as he tries to get on board with a whole new team of targets, it’s easy to see how Gronkowski’s presence will only slow that learning process, especially among an already talented tight end group who could provide the same sorts of mismatches that Gronkowski can.
As soon as the Gronk deal was announced, questions surfaced about whether Tampa Bay should retain O.J. Howard. That sort of conversation makes far too large an assumption. There are plenty of questions that need to be answered in Tampa Bay, but that isn’t one of them. I’m sure that bringing Gronk in will have some positive effects on Brady from both a statistical and emotional standpoint, but if it takes reps and trust away from the younger, healthier receiving corps, it’s easy to see the fallout coming a mile away.
I’m not saying that Gronk to the Buccaneers is a terrible idea. The potential is there for this to make Tampa Bay into an even more impressive offensive unit, but if Brady uses Gronk in lieu of getting familiar with his new teammates and then the big boy goes down, it could easily sink the (ahem) ship.
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