Rob Gronkowski's renaissance keyed Patriots' run to Super Bowl

PHOENIX -- So far this week, Rob Gronkowski has had a dance-off with a teammate's young daughter, read aloud from the erotic literature he inspired, imagined Arnold Schwarzenegger playing him in the inevitable movie and opined, after wandering into his media session 20 minutes late, that the reason there is so much interest in his party habits is "Because I'm a baller? Is that a good answer?"

Actually, it's a great answer, because it encompasses the dichotomy of Gronkowski.

Gronk is the overgrown frat boy of this Super Bowl, the player whose party bus everyone hopes to be invited to. But the lovable meathead caricature seems overly simplistic, especially after this season. While Gronkowski bounded through defenses like an eager puppy chasing a Frisbee, throwing defenders "out of the club," as he once described it, he solidified his place as perhaps the league's most important non-quarterback, the baller who powered the New England Patriots' offense.

Watching Gronkowski since the Pats selected him with the 42nd overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, it was clear almost immediately that he was capable of being the game's best tight end, and perhaps eventually, the greatest ever at the position. At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, he is a matchup nightmare for almost any team. (Though one team that could be equipped to handle him is the Seattle Seahawks, who employ a slew of big, physical, fast, hard-hitting defenders who are best at limiting yards after the catch.)

In 2011, the Patriots ran a tight end-centric offense featuring Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, with nearly 42 percent of Tom Brady's completions going to a TE in the league's third-ranked scoring offense. It was the next incarnation of offense to spring from Bill Belichick's mind in the post-Randy Moss era -- "They don't even use tight ends" was the confused initial reaction to the Gronkowski and Hernandez draft picks in 2010 -- sending opponents scrambling for people who could cover what amounted to very overgrown receivers. They went all the way to the Super Bowl like that until a now-familiar problem developed. Gronkowski was hurt in the playoffs and a high ankle sprain rendered him little more than a decoy against the New York Giants that year, perhaps the difference in that game and the reason the Patriots are still trying to get their fourth ring 10 years after they got the third. Hernandez's career, of course, came apart in shocking fashion: He's now facing multiple murder charges. For Gronk, though, the 2011 campaign was a microcosm of his career arc until this season -- a devastating talent whose body has often betrayed him and left the Patriots' offense looking like a table with one unsteady leg.

To understand the real impact Gronkowski has on the Patriots, it is best to remember the first month of the 2014 season. The Patriots brought Gronkowski along slowly during training camp and the preseason, to allow him to regain his comfort level and confidence following the knee blowout that ended his 2013 campaign. His return was considered Adrian Peterson-level fast -- he couldn't have surgery until last January -- but his brief time in pads was monitored closely by reporters in the summer heat, his re-emergence on the practice field accompanied by delighted screams from the stands packed with fans who were giddy over him merely warming up.

Gronk Watch became a thing for those of us who visited training camp. On an otherwise predictable team, his movements around the field -- what drills he took part in, how much time he spent catching passes from Brady on the side -- became the X-factor in trying to predict the Patriots' fortunes. Gronkowski has admitted to dark moments of doubt after the injury, but the Patriots, bowing to the reality that they would need him more later than earlier, allowed him to shake off the rust in September.

That was the month when it looked as if the entire enterprise might be crumbling beneath a shaky offensive line, a misfiring quarterback, an offense that couldn't find its rhythm. Gronkowski, though, was ready to be fully integrated into the game plan by October. Just before he left for Gillette Stadium prior to the Patriots' Week 5 game against the then-undefeated Cincinnati Bengals, Gronkowski had a conversation with one of his brothers that essentially forecast the rest of the season.

"I'm going to make 12 look like Tom Brady again," Gronkowski told the other Gronkowski -- and that is basically what he's been doing for the last four months.

Gronkowski caught six passes for 100 yards and a touchdown in New England's 43-17 mauling of the Bengals. In those first four games, when Gronkowski averaged 3.3 receptions and 36.8 yards per game, the Patriots averaged 20 points per game and went 2-2. Gronk has played in 13 games since then (he sat out a meaningless Week 17 game); in that span, the tight end has averaged 6.1 catches for 85.6 yards, and the Patriots have catapulted to 35.3 points per game while posting a 12-1 record.

In the locker room after that initial statement against Cincy, there was a touching window into how much football means to Gronkowski, a side you don't imagine when he poses with Johnny Manziel and bikini-clad friends. Gronkowski's voice was thick and hoarse with emotion that night when he talked about Brady and how he tried to lift him up: "And I went out there with my teammates, and we made Tom Brady look like Tom Brady, after you guys were criticizing him all week, the fans, everything. And it feels so good. He's such a leader. He went over 50,000 yards. He's an unbelievable player. I'm so glad to play with him."

It is tempting and fun, when he is photographed shirtless with kittens, to think that Gronkowski simply rolls in his bus (named "Sinners Bus") from the party to practice. But it doesn't square with how he has mastered the Patriots' complicated offense and earned the trust of the ultra-demanding Brady -- to the tune of 82 receptions for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns in the regular season.

This season, the Patriots, devoid of fast outside receiving threats, thrived on the short passing game and yards after the catch. Nobody has executed that better than Gronkowski, who has lined up in the traditional tight end spot next to the offensive tackle, in the slot and flexed out as a wide receiver. Were it not for Odell Beckham Jr., Gronkowski had the catch of the year, a leaping, backward-leaning one-hander in traffic. More ordinary are the times that he dragged defenders with him, like a bowling ball made of Velcro, toward the end zone. More hidden are the times that he draws defenders toward him, opening lanes for the running game to slither through.

This is the first time Gronkowski has been healthy this late in the season and it is the reason why, for the last two months of the regular season, it was apparent that New England was the only AFC team capable of winning the Super Bowl.

Gronkowski's teammates are usually as amused as anyone by his antics, probably because they know how it really is when the pictures with porn stars end and the work begins. This week saw an unlikely storyline emerge: Gronkowski as scholar, with his coaches and teammates swearing to his studiousness and his power of recall when absorbing a game plan.

"What I think he's done a great job at over the last few years is really understanding his individual technique of what he needs to do to try and be a better player," Brady said, "I think Gronk's done such a great job of kind of refining his own techniques and really going from just a great athlete who catches footballs to really a great tight end that knows how to run routes, knows how to block, takes a lot of pride in those things, understands coverages and understands how to gain leverages."

Belichick thinks that losing football during his recoveries might have spurred Gronkowski on to take his game up a notch. And Gronkowski himself admitted that he thinks people underestimate how hard he works because of his goofball image.

"I mean, I feel like some people just look at it like you go out there on game day and play, but that's not really the case," Gronkowski said. "You always have to be taking care of your body throughout the whole week, in the morning and all the way through nighttime, getting sleep."

Gronk sleeps?

With a championship in reach and the bus on the way to Glendale, the man who once bellowed "Yo Soy Fiesta" is preparing for the biggest bash of all.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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