By David Willis
---- — FOXBORO — It took three quarters and a little over five minutes, but Patriots fans finally received the gift they had been waiting six weeks for.
A Rob Gronkowski spike.
Out since Week 10 with a broken forearm, the superstar tight end made his much-anticipated return to the field yesterday. He sent the Pats fans who braved the 16-degree temperature (with wind chill) and snow-covered seats into hysterics with 9:20 to go in the fourth quarter when he caught a Tom Brady pass and cruised in for a 23-yard touchdown.
Then there was The Spike. You know, the celebration that has sold a few million Dunkin’ Donuts sandwiches this fall.
“It was huge to have Gronk back today,” said fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez. “When Gronk is on the field, defenses have to pay attention. He’s too big and too athletic. It opens things up for me and Wes (Welker) and Deion (Branch) and everyone really. And he’s going to be even healthier and more ready to go for the next game.”
Was it vintage Gronk, maybe the most unstoppable player in the NFL? Probably not.
After all, two catches for 42 yards is hardly a career day for the man that delivered the greatest season for a tight end in NFL history last year.
But after missing five game with a broken forearm suffered in the victory over the now red-hot Indianapolis Colts back on Nov. 18, what truly mattered was that Gronkowski, the NFL’s most feared, goofiest superstar was back in action.
“Turn on the film and you will see what makes Gronk special,” said backup tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. “He runs routes like a receiver, and with his size and speed he’s practically impossible to cover for a defensive back, safety, anybody. That rare ability shows up every week.”
No one looked happier for Gronkowski to be on the field than Gronk himself. he smiled from ear-to-ear during his postgame meeting with the press.
“I was out there having a good time and it was a blast,” said Gronk, who was cleared for game action midweek. “It felt good to get hit. It’s been about six weeks since I last got hit. So it was a lot of fun getting hit again.”
Gronk saw limited action in his first week back, playing with a heavy wrap on his left arm. He played just 24 of a possible 80 snaps and Brady threw to him just four times, compared to 12 targets for Welker. There were highs, like his touchdown, and lows, like when he dropped a pass and inadvertently knocked down another that seemed intended Hernandez.
But what really mattered was that Gronkowski was back. And that is a major key to the Patriots’ success not only in the passing game, but in the rushing attack as well. Who wouldn’t want a super-athletic, 6-foot-6, 265-pound monster blocking for the likes of Danny Woodhead and Stevan Ridley.
“He’s a great blocker,” said right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. “You involve him, and you know he will block his guy. He is tall, physical and it makes our job a little easier to have him in there.”
But no matter how great a blocker he is — and he is very good — it is catching passes which has made Gronk a superstar, and the offense has not moved as smoothly in his absence.
“It’s our jobs to fill in for a player that is hurt and we did what we could,” said Hoomanawanui, who along with Daniel Fells and a gimpy Hernandez faced the impossible task of filling Gronk’s shoes. “We did the best job we could and worked every day to fill that void. But Gronk is a great player and to have him back is great, especially this time of the year.”
Now suddenly a favorite again, having earned the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a bye thanks to the two straight wins and the Houston Texans’ horrific tailspin, the Patriots are back in position for a Super Bowl run, one that will feature their most dynamic player.
“I really wanted to get a few reps in before the playoffs started,” said Gronkowski. “I wanted to get the feel of the game and I am always ready to hit some people and get hit. You’ve got to get back out there and get in the huddle, so it felt great to be doing it again.”
David Willis is a sportswriter/videographer for The Eagle-Tribune. You can see his video profiles at eagletribune.com/sports.