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Brady With Gronk Is The Best Brady

Rob Gronkowski’s return to pro football has been speculated about since just about the moment he abruptly retired in March 2019, and this week the wrestling champion actually did it. On Tuesday, Gronk unretired and was dealt from the New England Patriots to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (along with a seventh-round draft choice) for a fourth-round pick.

The move reunites new Bucs QB Tom Brady with arguably his all-time favorite target. Brady and Gronk hooked up for 78 career touchdowns, which is the most Brady threw to any individual receiver, by no small margin. (Randy Moss is second with half as many TDs — he snagged 39 passes from Brady for scores.) Not only that, but the Brady-Gronkowski pairing is the fifth-most prolific touchdown combination in NFL history, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group:

Brady and Gronk made for a historic connection

Most career touchdown receptions thrown from Tom Brady, and most TDs in NFL history by a pairing of quarterback and receiver

Most TD passes from Tom Brady Most prolific TD pass combos
Receiver TDs Combo TDs
Rob Gronkowski 78 Manning/Harrison 112
Randy Moss 39 Rivers/Gates 89
Julian Edelman 36 Young/Rice 85
Wes Welker 34 Marino/Clayton 79
James White 24 Brady/Gronkowski 78
Deion Branch 24

Sources: Pro-Football-Reference.com, ESPN Stats & Information Group

Ever since Gronkowski made his NFL debut in 2010, Brady has been much more effective throwing to him than to the other targets at his disposal. Over that span, he had a 95.0 passer rating when targeting any receiver not named Gronkowski but a 121.6 passer rating when Gronk was his intended target — along with much higher rates of yards, first downs and touchdowns per attempt.

Brady was far better when he was throwing to Gronk

Passing statistics for Tom Brady since 2010, throwing to Rob Gronkowski and to all other targets

Stat Gronkowski All others
QB win %* 78.9% 72.5%
Completion % 65.9% 63.9%
Yards/att 9.9 7.2
Touchdown % 9.9% 4.6%
Interception % 2.3% 1.3%
First down/att 50.2% 35.9%
Passer rating 121.6 95.0

*QB win percentage is for games Brady started and Gronkowski had at least one target.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

For Gronkowski’s part, playing with Brady helped him become the most efficient pass-catcher — among tight ends and wide receivers — in the past three decades of NFL history, as we noted back when Gronk retired a year ago. When they were clicking, Gronk made Brady better, and Brady returned the favor.

Brady could have used Gronk’s help last year. With an inferior receiving corps in 2019, he had one of the worst statistical seasons of his career, symbolically capped off by the game-clinching pick six caught by Logan Ryan in what ended up being Brady’s final pass as a Patriot. The Buccaneers’ receivers were already an upgrade, between wideouts Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, both of whom cleared 1,100 yards through the air last season. And although Gronk was starting to slow down in his final season with New England in 2018 — posting the fewest yards per game (52.5) since his rookie season — that’s still more than any of Tampa’s tight ends had in 2019.

Is Gronk instantly Tampa’s top TE?

Receiving statistics for Rob Gronkowski’s 2018 season and for tight ends from the 2019 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Player G GS Targets Catches Catch% Yards Yds/G Yds/Tar TD
Rob Gronkowski* 13 11 72 47 65.3% 682 52.5 9.5 3
O.J. Howard 14 14 53 34 64.2 459 32.8 8.7 1
Cameron Brate 16 6 55 36 65.5 311 19.4 5.7 4
Tanner Hudson 9 1 5 2 40.0 26 2.9 5.2 0
Antony Auclair 8 5 3 1 33.3 11 1.4 3.7 0

*Statistics from the 2018 season.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

With Gronk, the Bucs now have a glut of tight ends on their roster, so someone might be on the move in the next few days. But even if Tampa Bay hangs on to only one incumbent at the position, that player and Gronk could form the kind of hyperproductive tight end combination that Brady has a lot of experience working with, even if that feels like a lifetime ago.

And maybe that last part remains the most pertinent for any conversation about the 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Their chances still hinge on a quarterback who will turn 43 in August — and now, in some ways, on an injury-prone tight end who turns 31 in May and hasn’t played a down since Super Bowl LIII. The oddsmakers boosted Tampa’s Super Bowl odds slightly with Tuesday’s news, and it’s certainly a move that could pay huge dividends for the Bucs if they end up getting the Brady and Gronk of old. There’s no guarantee that happens, of course — although the history and chemistry between the two is enough to deepen the intrigue around Brady’s post-Pats experiment in Florida.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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