EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Gronk is back. But even he wasn't enough Sunday.
The long-awaited return of the Patriots' fourth-year tight end finally came to pass at MetLife Stadium, and it was clear that he wasn't going to be treated with kid gloves. In the Patriots' first drive of the day, he caught two passes for 42 yards including a 30-yarder to set up Brandon Bolden's 1-yard plunge for the score.
But even though Gronkowski finished with eight catches (in 17 targets) for 114 yards, his presence still could not prevent the Patriots from losing a thoroughly disappointing 30-27 decision to the New York Jets.
Gronkowski finally got medical clearance on Friday to play after sitting out the first six weeks of the season, recovering from four surgeries on his left forearm as well as a procedure on his back.
"I feel good," he said in the locker room after the game. "I just have to keep working hard every week. I have a lot to improve on. It felt good to be out there with my teammates. Give credit to the Jets, they are a good team with a good defense. We have to make more plays."
Gronkowski's snaps were managed slightly; one press box count had him playing in 51 of 79 possible plays. But there were only a few signs of rust from his inactivity; he often sprinted into the open only to have Tom Brady's pass attempts fall short or otherwise miss the mark.
He didn't want to blame the nine missed connections on "rust."
"I don't want to say that, because that is what practice is for, to knock off the rust," he said. "There are no excuses, I have to make plays at all times. I have to work hard in practice and keep grinding. I have to get better every week."
Gronkowski has practiced since the beginning of the regular season, reportedly at a high level in recent weeks. So he said that he was prepared to play at past levels right from the start.
"You're not trying to get into rhythm during the game," he said. "You want to be in rhythm at the very beginning of the game. We moved the ball well at times. But you have to move the ball well at all times.
"We have to make more plays," he said. "Personally, I have to come down with some of those passes. I could have had some of them and I have to catch them in the future."
He was particularly upset over a couple of non-catches near the Jets' end zone - one of which he clearly appeared to lose looking into a sharp sun angle.
"I didn't see the ball at all, but that is no excuse," he said. "You have to be prepared for situations like that. I have to do a better job there. It was a nice throw and could have been a great play."
Brady was definitely glad to have one of his best weapons back in the repertoire, but he also acknowledged that Gronkowski's mere presence was not going to win football games.
"He played his butt off," Brady said. "All the guys played hard. There was a lot of effort. We played hard. We played for as long as we could. We just didn't make enough plays."