EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Happy Gronk is back.
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has an infectious personality that can uplift teammates, whether it’s on the field or in the locker room. Teammates say his demeanor often stands out in a hard-driving work environment in which levity can sometimes be in short supply.
Because of that, when Gronkowski is hurting physically and not quite himself, as he was for about a month leading into Sunday’s game against the New York Jets, the void of his upbeat approach can be especially noticeable.
So while Gronkowski provided a trademark “Wow!” moment with his 34-yard touchdown catch in Sunday’s win, it was everything around that play that seemed to be even more meaningful.
“He’s ‘The Gronk.’ He looked like he was having fun, and that’s awesome,” noted receiver Julian Edelman. “That’s what we want.”
Gronkowski’s reaction to the touchdown, a double arm thrust and thunderous spike, was reflective of that. It was part of restoring his confidence, which is one critical piece to the team’s hopes of making a strong charge into the postseason.
Teammates celebrating someone else’s success is always a positive sign of togetherness, but this one seemed even a little more significant because of what it represented: a signature play to show that Gronkowski — while still a difference-maker on the field at times – is in a much better place emotionally than he had been over the past month or so as he battled ankle and back injuries.
“It felt good,” he acknowledged. “I’ve been putting in the work to get back, and now I just feel like I can keep on improving and do what I have to do to help the team.”
Brady called the touchdown the type of play that only Gronkowski could make among NFL tight ends, while Edelman credited Gronkowski’s blocking as a key on his 21-yard, catch-and-run touchdown in the third quarter.
In all, Gronkowski played 69 of a possible 70 offensive snaps, with the lone play on the sideline coming late in the second quarter. His return to action for the first time in 27 days included Brady unsuccessfully going to him on back-to-back plays in the end zone in the second quarter with safety Jamal Adams tightly covering him and Gronkowski turning into a defender to bat one potential interception away. Brady’s throws on both plays appeared to be a bit off the mark, not giving Gronkowski a chance to make plays in a one-on-one situation.
But Brady was on the money with his first-quarter touchdown strike to Gronkowski, and in recording his 78th career touchdown reception, Gronkowski tied Pro Football Hall of Famer Terrell Owens for the third-most touchdown catches by a player prior to turning 30 years old. Only Randy Moss (101) and Jerry Rice (95) had more prior to the age of 30.
The Patriots have won 13 straight games when Gronkowski scores a touchdown, but the stats almost seemed secondary to his upbeat presence and restoration of confidence, as well as his teammates’ reaction to it.