TAMPA, Fla. -- First they signed Tom Brady in free agency. Now they've traded for Rob Gronkowski. In a span of only two months, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have gone from national irrelevance to potential powerhouse, with a real possibility of not only reaching the postseason for the first time since 2007 but of winning the Super Bowl in their own city. No NFL team has ever done that.
Brady and Gronkowski can become the third Hall of Fame duo to connect for touchdown passes with multiple franchises, according to research by the Elias Sports Bureau. They would join Y.A. Tittle and Hugh McElhenny with the 49ers and Giants, and Ken Stabler and Dave Casper with the Raiders and Oilers.
Gronkowski adds to the riches of pass-catchers Brady will have at his disposal in Tampa. Wide receiver Mike Evans is fourth in receiving yards in the NFL over the past two seasons (2,681), and fellow wideout Chris Godwin was third in receiving yards (1,333) in 2019. Gronkowski led all tight ends in receiving yards in 2017 (1,084) with Brady in New England. Gronkowski had a "down" year in 2018, registering 682 receiving yards in 13 games with the Patriots -- but that still would've been the most in a season by a Bucs tight end since Kellen Winslow Jr. (763) in 2011.
Adding Gronkowski is a clear indication coach Bruce Arians is more than willing to collaborate with Brady, as Arians' offense isn't known for significant use of the tight end, with 74 targets to tight ends in 2019 -- 15th in the league -- while Brady targeted the position extensively in New England.
"I think that's one thing that drew us both together is I've always collaborated with my quarterbacks, whether it be putting a playbook together with Ben [Roethlisberger] or starting with Andrew [Luck] from scratch," Arians said last month. "[It's about] just finding out the likes and dislikes of a quarterback."
In this case, it was a 6-foot-6 tight end moonlighting in the WWE. Gronkowski still had one year left on his contract with the New England Patriots after retiring following the 2018 season. The Bucs will now foot the bill on his $10 million price tag. They'll have to move some money around, as they have just $13.5 million in salary-cap space and still need to pay their draft picks, but it's workable, as was forking over a fourth-round draft pick in return for a seventh.
In Las Vegas on Feb. 3, the Bucs opened at 50-1 to win a championship, prior to signing Brady. That number dropped to 22-1 (ninth best) on March 17, and to 14-1 (tied for fifth) on April 21, after Gronkowski's trade was finalized. The Bucs are certainly trying to maximize their chances in 2020. But there are still many questions beyond this season, with answers that simple math cannot provide. How long does Gronkowski intend to keep playing, after having undergone more than a dozen surgeries in his nine-year career? He has spoken openly about the debilitating pain he endured to keep performing at a high level, and that the night of winning a Super Bowl, he was in tears over it.
"He really needed a break, physically and mentally," agent Drew Rosenhaus said on SportsCenter on Tuesday. "He fought hard -- the year they won the Super Bowl, he played injured pretty much the entire  season -- he was never truly himself. He's a team player. His time off really reinvigorated him physically. He tells me he feels fantastic, the best he's ever felt."
What if Gronkowski plays only a year, yet the Bucs part ways with O.J. Howard, the 19th overall draft pick in 2017? Has Arians completely given up on him? No roster move has been made, but it's hard to imagine keeping him, Gronkowski and Cam Brate, who restructured his deal earlier this offseason. Not when those resources could be used elsewhere.
Though general manager Jason Licht said at the NFL combine, "We have plans for O.J. being in our offense this year," the Bucs have listened and will continue to listen to offers.
A source told ESPN that the Bucs were in discussions to trade Howard two months ago to the Washington Redskins in exchange for offensive tackle Trent Williams, but talks fell through. The Bucs have until May 5 to determine if they'll pick up the fifth-year option on Howard's contract for 2021.
Reiss: A new environment factored into Gronk's return
Mike Reiss reports that the opportunity to play in a new environment outside of New England and the chance to pair up with Tom Brady in Tampa influenced Rob Gronkowski's decision to come out of retirement.
How does this move, coupled with Brady's signing, impact the Bucs' current team? Many would argue that last year, the Bucs weren't one or two players away, or in position to make such audacious moves. They had a young secondary, with two of their three cornerbacks starting as rookies in Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean, and their third starter, Carlton Davis, in his second year. Up until Week 10 last season, they had given up the third-most passing touchdowns in the league (19).
In the final eight weeks of the season, that group improved to finish in a tie for 14th with 11 passing touchdowns surrendered but still finished with 1,974 passing yards given up in that span -- sixth most in the league. The group now has to grow up a heck of a lot faster, as these moves dramatically changed the Bucs' window to contend; the secondary is going to feel the weight of that.
The Bucs have only a two-year window with 43-year-old Brady, who has indicated he would like to play until age 45. But they also have a small window with Arians, who came out of retirement to coach the Bucs in 2019. He is under contract for four more seasons, but many close to the 67-year-old head coach feel he might coach for only two more seasons before the passing the torch. What will the organization look like then?
The Bucs have already shown in the past that they're unafraid to sacrifice for the short term. Under former head coach Jon Gruden, they had a carousel of veteran quarterbacks on short-term deals -- Brad Johnson, Jeff Garcia and Brian Griese. They also signed aging wide receivers like Charlie Garner and David Boston because they had traded away draft picks to land Gruden and had no cap space. They paid for it dearly, going 103-161 since winning the Super Bowl in 2002 -- 29th in the NFL, with zero organizational continuity. They had to hit the "reset" button multiple times, resulting in three general managers, five head coaches and countless roster changes ever since.
The good news is, the Bucs didn't have to mortgage the future to land Gronkowski or Brady. They've got a much healthier salary-cap situation, too. And with Brady and Arians joining forces, they are closer than they ever would have been.
When the Bucs announced the move, Licht spoke glowingly not only of Gronkowski's level of play but of his passion. He can be another culture-changer, an area they've been trying to address and have made significant strides in.
"What really makes him special," Licht said, "is the fact that he's a proven winner who brings that championship mindset and work ethic."
The Bucs are going to have to get used to playing under the microscope now and the expectations that brings -- something they didn't handle very well under previous head coach Dirk Koetter. They went 9-7 in 2016 and were touted as playoff contenders the following season on HBO's "Hard Knocks" but wound up finishing 5-11 the next two years and slid back into irrelevance.
At the time, players acknowledged that they performed better away from the spotlight, that they were more of an "under the radar" type of team. Fast-forward to 2020, with a different head coach and two bona fide superstars joining the squad -- there's no ducking from it now. But this time, they'll be better equipped to handle it.