New England Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski played 14 snaps against the Houston Texans and didn’t record a catch or a target. Still, the fact that he was on the field was notable enough because the All Pro tight end hasn’t played in a preseason game since week 3 of the 2012 preseason.
It’s been a long time.
When asked why Gronkowski played, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had little to offer.
“I played all the players that were healthy,” Belichick shrugged.
But when asked about the benefits of playing in the preseason versus lining up in practice, Belichick offered a little more.
“Well, it's live football,” Belichick explained. “Tackling. Blocking. It's live football. We got a lot out of those practices. Game situations are different. You learn from those, too.”
Gronkowski missed most of the 2016 season with various injuries (hamstring, chest, back) and so it was important for him to get some game experience prior to the start of the 2017 season so the first time he engaged in game-level contact after his third back surgery wasn’t in the opening week of the regular season.
“It felt good to be out there, get the speed of the game,” Gronkowski said after the game. “It just felt good to be back out there with the boys, for sure.”
Patriots QB Tom Brady was also thrilled to see his teammate back on the field.
“Everyone knows how I feel about that and I am just happy he’s out there playing and healthy,” Brady said after the game. “He is building his confidence. I think that’s what everyone is out there trying to do. In different times of your life you try different types of experiences that you have force you to do different things. I am proud of his effort. We’ve got to just keep building as a team. Having everyone out there, we’ve had a relatively healthy camp so we just have to keep getting after it.”
Gronkowski has remained healthy all offseason and has been a full participant dating back to the spring, so he should be ready to perform in the regular season against the Kansas City Chiefs. But even after 18 years in the NFL, Brady still appreciates the value of live action.
“I think for all of us to get out there and play is something you can’t just replicate in practice,” Brady said about Gronkowski. “To get those reps in and get the speed of the game; everything is just happening the way it normally happens.”
Gronkowski will have a much greater role in the regular season- the Patriots won’t give the ball to Rex Burkhead on every single down- and Gronkowski is ready. Part of the value of playing in the preseason is to build up that mental capacity to show that he can still perform in any circumstance.
“We expect to play every game, 60 minutes every game,” Gronkowski said. “It felt good to be out there and get my feet wet – how many plays, whatever we played, the coaches had us in. It was great. I love to play football and it felt great to be out there.”
“That’s how we prepare,” he added about always being ready to play, “that’s how we go into these games mentally."
It will be interesting to monitor Gronkowski’s playtime in week three of the preseason against the Detroit Lions and whether or not the team gives him any receiving opportunities. No matter what the Patriots decide, Gronkowski will be preparing to be the star in the New England offense.