Rob Gronkowski is coming off just his fifth career game without a reception. Meaning that in Tampa's first two games his stat line is:
Targets: 4, Receptions: 2, Receiving yards: 11
Which for the better part of his career, those were his numbers for a below average drive. Beyond the data, Gronk looks nothing at all like his former, pre-WWE self. Running like he's wearing ski boots. Finesse blocking. Getting pushed off the line of scrimmage at times by straight up bull rushes. I've said before that even if Gronk came back as a shadow of himself, Shadow Gronk would make the Pro Bowl. Now it's fair to wonder if he'll make it through the season. I don't wish for this. But I have to trust my own lying, progressive lens-corrected eyes.
With that, Gronk got a really back-handed show of support from Bruce Arians inThe Athletic (paywall):
“We haven’t had that many red-zone opportunities and I don’t see him running 40 yards past people any more … We brought him in to play tight end. If that means no catches, that means no catches. If it means 10 catches, it means 10 catches because he’s open and that’s where the ball goes.”
There's a lot to unpack here. Beginning with the fact that his is the New Bruce. Coach McFriendly must have been sensitive to criticism that Tom Brady and Gronk were only going to Tampa because he's the Amy Poehler of coaches:
… who's gonna make it fun and let you be yourself and then hang out in the parking lot with the tailgaters after the game crushing Bud Lights. But as if he's got to prove he's not, he's going to this other extreme. Coach Ratched. The new Bill Parcells who's not afraid to publicly blame stuff on his quarterback and call out his tight end's limitations and they will respect his authorit-ah. And according to one interview at least, Gronk was responding positively.
That said, let's see how long this works. If we learned anything about Gronk in his nine seasons in New England, he'll take tough coaching. But there's a limit to how much. he played for the most successful coach in league history and decided to retire to go do Wrestlmania rather than take another droplet of crap from him because the man once mocked him in practice for training under TB12 Fitness methods. Bill Belichick never ripped him in the press or questioned his ability to get open. So how long can we expect he'll take it from a guy who's still chasing career win No. 60 when he didn't have to put up with it from a guy who already has five times that (with 31 times as many postseason wins)?
And Gronk would not be wrong to be cheesed off about this. This isn't some JAG. He's Rob frigging Gronkowski. He's left particles of better coaches than Bruce Arians in his wind. There are five tight ends on the NFL Top 100 All Time list that came out last year, and he's one of them. For seven straight seasons, from 2011-17, he was the top ranked tight end on Pro Football Focus with an overall grade of 90+, which has never been done before. So if you're going to put his name in your mouth, do it with some respect. He's earned it.
Part of this equation though, is that Gronk IS struggling. That top grade on PFF in 2017 (90.5) dropped to 11th best in 2018 (75.2) and is currently at 44th best (60.4) out of 71 tight ends graded. Just behind, ironically enough, Ryan Izzo, who is nobody's idea of a TE1.
So Gronk has to be frustrated as it is. He's being reduced to a blocking tight end, which can't be what he was hoping for when he unretired. Nor can it be what the Bucs were expecting when they paid him $9.5 million. Or what Brady was hoping for when he got reunited with his boy under a coach who would appreciate and nurture them both. There's a long way to go and maybe Tampa Gronk will start looking vaguely like New England Gronk and Arians will start self-editing his comments. But my guess is it's more probable than not this is going to turn into a major problem before it's through.