The four-time First Team All-Pro tight end was the lone saving grace for Tom Brady’s weaponry entering this season, his lone target differentiating this group from, say, the 2006 group.
Rob Gronkowski came out gangbusters, catching seven passes for 123 yards and a touchdown in New England’s Week 1 win over the Houston Texans. It remains his lone game this season with north of 100 receiving yards, and of greater concern, his lone score.
His lone Gronk Spike™.
Gronkowski was there when it mattered most last week vs. the Kansas City Chiefs, grabbing two passes in the fourth quarter – including a 39-yarder which got the Patriots well within Stephen Gostkowski’s field goal range, all but sealing the 43-40 win for the Patriots.
New England has now won three games in a row, averaging just under 40 points per game on the streak. Could the minimal contributions of Gronk – particularly in the red zone, where he’s been targeted once all season – be a result of the emergence of Josh Gordon, coupled with the return of Julian Edelman, or are there other factors at play?
It’s now five straight games without a touchdown reception for Gronkowski, far and away the longest such streak of his nine-year career.
So long as the Patriots keep winning, he’ll continue to toe the company line, but the re-worked, incentive-laden contract he’s playing under for the second year in a row is no doubt in the back of his mind.
“Our goal is the same as it’s always been,” Bill Belichick said on Friday, deflecting a question in regards to individual statistics being built into a player’s contract. “I think Tom, and Rob, and everybody else on this team, Devin [McCourty] and Pat [Chung] and everybody else – they come in here and work hard to try to go out and compete well and win games.
“You’d have to ask other people that question. I don’t know. Our goal is to win games. Other people have other agendas, but that’s not ours.”
Up until the fourth quarter vs. Kansas City, Gronkowski had just one catch on two targets for 16 yards.
Assuming health, Gronkowski is on pace for 69 catches and 1,080 yards. Those numbers are virtually identical to his totals from 2017, when in 14 games he caught 69 passes for 1,084 yards.
He caught eight touchdown passes last season, though, and even in his many injury-riddle seasons, he’s managed to catch a minimum of three touchdowns every year of his career. His current pace would have him fall short of even that total.
“It is what it is. First off, I’ve got to get open,” Gronkowski said earlier this week of his lack of opportunities in the red zone. “I’ve got to get out there and run better routes and then I’ll start seeing more targets. Whatever play is called, we’re scoring points, we’re scoring down there. Whatever I have to do to help out the team, even if the ball’s not going my way, I’ve just got to do it and just keep grinding. If I keep playing ball, keep doing what I need to do, keep playing better, I might start receiving the targets. That’s what it comes down to so just got to get better and get open.”
Gronkowski’s base salary for the 2018 season is $8 million, making him the sixth-highest paid tight end in the game.
However, should he reach his incentives, he can earn upwards of an extra $3.3 million, per Spotrac. He can also earn another $1 million in per-game bonuses.
Gronkowski can hit three of the following four thresholds worth $1.1 million each to get his extra money: 70 catches, 1,085 receiving yards, nine touchdown receptions and be on the field for 80 percent of New England’s offensive snaps.
Per usual, Gronkowski has been facing double teams in just about every situation imaginable when the Patriots are on offense. It might not be helping him in the statistical department quite yet, but it is enabling Brady to develop a rapport with Gordon, who led the team with nine targets against the Chiefs.
It’s helping Edelman get his sea legs back after serving a four-game suspension to begin the season, not to mention miss all of last season with a torn ACL. It’s helped James White become as valuable as ever in New England’s offensive scheme, and last week it helped Chris Hogan re-emerge in Brady’s vaunted “circle of trust.”
“I think we’re getting there and we’re working on it,” Brady said on Friday, pressed about the Patriots reaching their full potential offensively. “I certainly think that every week that goes by, we’re going to try to keep making improvements and get better. A lot of different players we’ve tried to incorporate this year and I think we’re working our way through it. I don’t think we’re there yet. I know I said after last game we still have some work to do and we still feel like our best is ahead of us. We’re just going to have to go out and play really well this weekend to get the same results. That’s what we’re trying for.”
It feels like it’s only a matter of time before Brady and Gronkowski re-establish their red zone magic. It’s not like Brady would have any reason to side with management as it pertains to Gronk’s incentives, lest we forget Brady, too, is on an incentive-laden deal.
The short-term setbacks should make for an even more terrifying offense down the stretch as other teams learn they need to pay attention to Gordon, Edelman and White once again. Get ready for a monstrous stretch from Gronk.