HOUSTON – It was late Sunday evening at NRG Stadium and tight end Rob Gronkowski stepped in front of the crowd of reporters in front of his locker and couldn’t stop smiling.
“When you miss a game, it’s just hard to watch. You want to be out there playing football, making plays,” he explained. “But at the same time, you just have to be smart about it, which we were.”
Early last week, he seemed like a long shot to play because of the bone bruise and sprain in his right knee. He was held out of the team’s full-pads practice on Wednesday, then was a limited participant in workouts on Thursday and Friday. The Patriots, as they often do, planned for contingencies.
Meanwhile, Gronkowski’s status created a buzz on sports-talk radio about whether the team and player were operating off the same script. Part of what seemed to spark the chatter was a video from Gronkowski. It was posted online shortly after the unusual joint statement between the team and Gronkowski family on Dec. 1 in which Gronkowski repeated he would return when he was 100 percent. He repeated “100 percent” twice.
Yet Gronkowski wasn’t at 100 percent in his return, at least according to quarterback Tom Brady.
“He really toughed it out,” Brady said late Sunday. “I am proud of him.”
Gronkowski’s workload was evidence of that. He usually plays every snap, but against the Texans, he was charted on the field for 42 of 69 snaps (including penalties and kneel-downs).
“I’m very, very satisfied with how many plays I played, just getting back into the mix after missing two weeks,” he said after totaling four receptions for 87 yards and one touchdown, all while wearing a brace over his knee. “It just felt good overall to get back in the action. Hopefully we’ll see how everything goes throughout the week now and the next games.”
Somewhere along the way, perhaps in the air from Foxborough to Houston, something changed with Gronkowski’s status. He didn’t want to delve into that late Sunday night, saying he preferred only to talk about the game.
As for his impact, it was felt quickly.
His 45-yard catch in the first quarter, which came on an extended play as Brady rolled out of the pocket to the right and spotted a wide-open Gronkowski cutting across the field as he escaped Whitney Mercilus in coverage, set up the team’s first touchdown.
After the catch, Gronkowski stuck his tongue out in celebration and shook his head back and forth.
“I was running that route and it was taking a while, and I couldn’t even see Tom, had no clue where he was,” he recalled with excitement. “Next thing you know, I just see the ball go flying in the air coming to me and then I couldn’t see the ball any more in that stadium. It went right into the lights for like half the way and I’m like, ‘I know it’s coming to me’ and then when it was like 20 feet coming down, I saw it – ‘there it is!’ Just had to make that catch.”
Then came a 1-yard touchdown reception late in the second quarter, when the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski was split wide to the left against 5-foot-11, 208-pound safety Quintin Demps. Brady lofted a beautiful pass in Gronkowski's direction, and after some hand-fighting, he reached up and hauled it in while falling on his back. It was followed by a patented Gronkowski touchdown spike.
“Just had to make a little move. The DB played good defense, and Tom just put it up there where I had to go up and make a play,” he said. “It’s always good to make a play, get a touchdown.”
Sandwiching those two plays was a 6-yard catch in the second quarter in which he was pushed out of bounds, and a 35-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter.
Gronkowski reported that his knee felt good after the game. After two straight losses, it also felt good for him to smile again after a game.
“It turned out good,” he said. “It was great to be back out there.”