Rob Gronkowski thought he was done in 2018, but look at the Super Bowl LV champ now

As Rob Gronkowski struggled through injuries and then ultimately retired — a brief retirement, as it turned out — we saw other tight ends, namely Travis Kelce and George Kittle, step into the spotlight.

Kelce in particular, the Kansas City Chiefs’ All-Pro, has generated a great deal of buzz and speculation that perhaps he was the greatest tight end ever. If what you value most in a tight end is catches, then Kelce certainly has a case.

But on Sunday night, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers stunned the Chiefs to win Super Bowl LV, Gronkowski got to remind everyone that he’s not ready to give up that title, at least not yet.

The 31-year-old had a team-high six catches for 67 yards and two first-half touchdowns, rising to the occasion and showing once again why he’s arguably the greatest red-zone weapon that has ever played the game.

“It just happened to be me this time,” Gronkowski said on Sunday night, talking about the depth of Tampa Bay’s offensive skill players. “We did a great job throwing the ball around, playing as a team, that’s what you have to do.”

Gronkowski did say he had an idea that he might have a big night because the game-plan called for him to leak out on some plays instead of wrap and block the far-side defensive lineman. It was expected he’d wrap, but he rarely, if ever, had been asked to leak, and it was an unexpected wrinkle for the Chiefs’ defense.

When Tom Brady asked Gronkowski to come out of retirement and join him in Tampa, it was hard to know what to expect: Gronkowski had lost a good bit of weight in his year off, and with no offseason programs and limited training camp, he didn’t have a lot of time to get back into playing shape (and in true Gronk style, he even finessed the offseason workouts he was supposed to record and send to Buccaneers coaches).

Feb 7, 2021; Tampa, FL, USA;  Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) and tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) celebrate after beating the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium.  Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 7, 2021; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) and tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) celebrate after beating the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

But the time away and maybe even the dropped weight were good for Gronkowski: he played in every game this year, the first time he’s been able to do that since 2011, his second season in the NFL. In between, he suffered shredded ankle ligaments, a broken arm, a re-break of the same arm, a torn ACL and back surgeries. His body needed the rest, and it clearly did him good.

He recalled his last Super Bowl, with the New England Patriots at the end of the 2018 season when they beat the Los Angeles Rams, and how different he feels now.

“I remember after that win I was so done coming off the field,” Gronkowski said. “I was like, I’m just glad it’s over. The pain I was in too. It was great to be a champ, but it was great to be done. To come out of retirement, I retired from being retired, which is pretty cool, and coming down here — I saw this opportunity, I love Florida, it was an opportunity to be in great weather, wear t-shirts and shorts ever day to work, that’s my style.

“What a start to the journey, what a finish to the journey.”

In Florida, reunited with the quarterback he’d enjoyed such success with, able to spend time with his mother one-on-one for the first time in his life, Gronkowski didn’t have the type of numbers that made him a four-time first-team All-Pro over the first nine seasons of his career: 45 catches for 623 yards and seven touchdowns.

And as the Buccaneers put together their four-game win streak to end the regular season and their first three playoff wins, Gronkowski was more of a bit player in the offense, and had just two catches for 43 yards in the run to the Super Bowl.

On Sunday night, however, when Brady needed someone to put touchdowns on the board against the best offense in the league, he looked to the person he trusted most, Gronkowski.

"It felt good to show up — it's the Super Bowl. It's unbelievable, shows all the hard work,” he said. “I remember as a rookie, [Brady] yelling at me to get where I have to get to because he saw so much potential in me."

Maybe it’s recency bias that has some calling Kelce the best tight end ever, even though Gronk isn’t that old, but when he was healthy there was nothing like him. He put up incredible offensive numbers, including 79 touchdowns over the first 115 games of his career (for comparison, Antonio Gates retired with 116 touchdowns in 236 games).

More than that, Gronkowski was tremendous as a run-blocker and he was a matchup nightmare: too big for cornerbacks to cover, too quick for linebackers. And in the open field, wow.

That’s what a tight end is supposed to be, not just an oversized receiver.

Brady has said more than once that Gronkowski never has a bad day; Gronk has been portrayed as little more than a goofy party guy, but it’s not as simple as that. He does love a good time, but his positivity is infectious and endears him to teammates, coaches and media alike. Add to that his work ethic and results, and it’s not hard to understand why Brady wanted Gronk to join him with the Bucs.

“You know, it feels amazing. It feels tremendous. Unbelievable story,” said Gronkowski, who indicated he’s leaning toward returning next season. “The first time a team going to the Super Bowl in its home town, that story is surreal.

“But the most important storyline is how everyone worked together. Everyone contributed. It’s just amazing. What a year it was playing with these guys. What a year. I can’t say that enough.”

Super Bowl LV from Yahoo Sports: