Now, if there’s actually a 2020 NFL season, what offense will be more interesting?
Tom Brady in Tampa Bay is one thing. Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski in Tampa Bay together? That’s delicious.
There’s an X’s-and-O’s element to this — or, for the first time in Bucs’ history, an O’s-and-X’s element — because Brady and Gronkowski together make for one of the most dynamic and dangerous pass-and-catch combos in NFL history. But there’s more than that.
These are two of the NFL’s dominant characters over the past decade. They might be the two dominant characters, particularly when it comes to teammates. Who rivals Brady and Gronk in New England in some nebulous combination of personality, drama, flair and performance? Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh? Maybe. Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson in Green Bay? Eh. Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch in Seattle? Now we’re reaching.
These are Hall of Fame players with Hall of Fame Q-ratings. It’s not just the on-field chemistry, though that’s undeniable and important. It’s the other stuff. Brady developed not just a legacy as the best quarterback ever during his 20 seasons with the Patriots but also built a brand that became a lifestyle. It wasn’t just football. It was being married to Gisele and teaching people about how red peppers anger the blood, about “TB12” and preparation being more important than talent.
That he was paired with Gronk — both in the same offense but more importantly in spirit — is somehow both surprising and perfect. If the conversation of best quarterback starts with Brady, the accompanying chat about tight end starts with Gronkowski. Now, after a year of “retirement” that always seemed just a tap on the pause button, Gronk gets to further his status as a legend with his old — and, at 43 by the start of the season, we mean old — running mate.
Brady is the all-time corporate father figure. Gronk, 31 next month, is the all-time bro. Somehow, it works. It’s not hard to imagine Brady and Gisele, living in Derek Jeter’s old Tampa mansion, inviting Gronk and his girlfriend, supermodel (of course) Camille Kostek, over for some green smoothies and kale. The Bucs, for so long the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-grass stain-your-uniforms franchise of John Lynch and Derrick Brooks, of Lee Roy Selmon and Ronde Barber, now have genuine, generational glamour. This is Page Six, People magazine material.
Plus, there’s football drama here. Brady, so disciplined in his public positivity and aversion to controversy, told Howard Stern, of all people, that he believed when the 2019 season started it would be his last in New England. He had to know that the only team for which Gronkowski would return would be the one Brady was on. Did Brady engineer Tuesday’s trade of Gronkowski from New England to Tampa Bay?
There has to be something to it because all New England received in return for the most dynamic tight end in history was a fourth-round pick — and the Patriots had to give up a seventh-rounder along with Gronk. The only explanation: There was no market for Gronk with the other 30 NFL teams, because none of the other 30 NFL teams have Brady on their roster. He would play with Brady, or he wouldn’t play at all.
The football part: There are no games of any kind now, so we have plenty of time to debate the best pass-and-catch combinations of all time. Jerry Rice and Joe Montana, sure. Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison, Dan Marino and Mark Clayton, Jim Kelly and Andre Reed. All are worthy. Take your pick or add others not mentioned. These kinds of arguments are fun. Just do it on Zoom.
When it comes to a quarterback and a tight end, there’s really only one duo that rivals Brady and Gronk: Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates. Gates’s 116 regular season touchdown receptions far eclipse Gronkowski’s total of 79, but Rivers wasn’t his only quarterback during his San Diego days, and the Chargers didn’t so much as reach a Super Bowl. Including the playoffs, Gates caught 89 touchdowns from Rivers. Gronkowski scored 92 touchdowns of all types in his career, regular and postseason. One came on a rush. One came on a pass from Jimmy Garoppolo. The other 90, including a dozen in the playoffs, came from Brady.
In New England last fall, there was much angst about what was missing from the Patriots’ offense. It’s pretty easily distilled to: Gronkowski. In the nine seasons Brady and Gronkowski played together, the Patriots never ranked worse than fourth in the NFL in points scored and only once were worse than eighth in yards gained. Last year: seventh in points, an absolutely middling 15th in yards.
That’s partly because Gronk was kicking it on the couch. Of Brady’s 541 regular season touchdown passes — a total that trails only Drew Brees’s by six — 78 went to Gronkowski. Only Randy Moss (39) even reached half that many. According to Pro Football Focus, Brady’s passer rating when targeting Gronk is — get this — 129.6. (The record passer rating in an NFL season is Aaron Rodgers’s 122.5 in 2011.) They are a historic hookup.
For all his success in New England, Brady never had a Rice, a Harrison, a Reed. In some ways, it makes his accumulation of numbers — and of six (!) Super Bowl rings — more impressive. Troy Aikman had Michael Irvin. Tom Brady had … Julian Edelman and Wes Welker and Deion Branch?
Now, he’s in Tampa Bay, where there’s no history of elite quarterback play, only an offensive legacy to build in the season or two he has remaining. The Bucs’ career leading passer is Jameis Winston, who is out of a starting job after a season in which he threw 33 touchdown passes but 30 picks. Their career leading receiver is Mike Evans, who will enter his seventh season in the league with Brady as his signal-caller and Gronk lined up inside him.
The bland-as-bran Buccaneers have transformed their brand in the midst of a pandemic. There are a million reasons to hope there’s football this fall, mostly surrounding what that could mean about how far we have come with public health. A little gem in the midst of all that would be Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski together again — on the field, and off.
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