Rob Gronkowski returns and all is right with the Bucs
Considering how wobbly the Bucs looked in losing two games in a row to New Orleans and Washington, it was good to see a sturdy Rob Gronkowski return to the lineup.

The Pro Bowl tight end hadn't played a full game since suffering a rib injury in a Week 3 loss against the Rams in Los Angeles. But Gronkowski's return in the Bucs' 30-10 win over the Giants on Monday Night Football provided more than a security blanket to quarterback Tom Brady.

Tampa Bay found itself in another tight game after Brady's pass to Mike Evans was bobbled and intercepted by safety Adoree' Jackson, a play that led to an easy game-tying touchdown for New York in the first half.

Facing third down and needing somebody - anybody - to make a play, Brady looked for his old Patriots teammate and spotted him running free over the middle of the field. Gronkowski hauled in the 35-yard pass to set up a touchdown run by Ronald Jones, and the Bucs never looked back.

"Oh, it's huge," coach Bruce Arians said. "(Brady) had all day on that play to find (Gronkowski). He was like his fourth read, and Gronk just kept on running. That's a big target to miss running across the field, so he's easy to see. Yeah, it was great to have him back, run and pass."

The Bucs' playoff position has healed, as well. At 7-3, they own a two-game lead over the Saints in the NFC South. For all the ills that had beset the Bucs during their two-game skid - they hadn't won a game in 29 days - whom better to show a team how to heal quickly than Gronkowski?

The injury forced him to miss the reunion game with Brady at New England the next week. He tried to play at New Orleans on Halloween but lasted only six snaps until back spasms forced him to leave the game.

All week long, the Bucs talked about needing some energy add a sense of urgency. Gronkowski provided both. He brought glee back into the huddle and wreaked havoc after they broke it. Gronkowski finished with six catches for 71 yards and drew a key pass interference penalty. He was among four Bucs players to finish with a half dozen receptions. Gronkowski's run-blocking helped spring running backs Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones, who scored on a 6-yard touchdown, his first since Week 4 at New England.

Brady was asked how Gronkowski affects the Bucs offense. "Every way, just because he's so dynamic in the run game and the pass game, in short throws, deep throws, red zone, third down," Brady said. "A dominant blocker. He's just consistent, dependable. He's been my teammate for a long time. It's a real privilege to play with such an incredible player and person."

Gronkowski didn't know until later in the week he would play Monday night. He had to practice back-to-back days last week and recovered well enough to convince Arians he was ready. "Just to be back out there with the boys," Gronkowski said. "Cracking some jokes on the sidelines, making some plays. That's what it's all about."

The fun was back for the Bucs Monday. There were some lighter moments, like the play where Brady actually eluded a tackler and ran 10 yards for a first down. "I was kind of open on that play going down the seam, and I looked back and I said, ‘Why aren't I getting the ball?'" Gronkowski said. "And he's running with the ball. I'm like, ‘Oh, man, you could've just chucked it up in the air and maybe it would've been a touchdown. I said, ‘Man, that's pretty dope.' He got a first down. That's what we needed."

Gronkowski said the Bucs were dialed in more during practice this week, although Brady prepared the way he always does. He distributed the ball well in completing 30 of 46 passes for 307 yards, two touchdowns and the interception off Evans' pads. Evans atoned for the mistake with a historic 5-yard TD reception. It was the 72nd of his career, breaking the franchise record held by fullback Mike Alstott who was watching the game.

Considering his history of injuries, it's remarkable that Gronkowski is still able to play at all. The Bucs admitted they rushed him back too fast at New Orleans and it cost him. "It didn't go the way we all hoped it would last time, but that's football," Gronkowski said. "I mean, it happens. You learn a little bit from it. Unfortunately, the circumstances set me back a little bit. But that's fine. I'm back on track now, and I'm good to go."

Rick Stroud, The Tampa Times, published 23 November 2021