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Gronk on slow start: ‘I’m here to block, baby’



TAMPA, Fla. — Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski doesn’t appear to be fazed by his slow start in Bruce Arians’ offense — one that has rendered him with just two catches on four targets and 33 routes run, for 11 receiving yards in two games. He’s taking things in stride and treating it with some humor.

“I’m a blocking tight end. I came here to block, baby,” Gronkowski joked Friday. “So four targets is four more than I thought I was gonna get.”

It’s the lowest production of the five-time Pro Bowler’s career through the first two weeks of any season. In his seven other seasons where he’s played in Weeks 1-2, he’s averaged 8.7 catches on 13.4 targets, 127 receiving yards and 1.85 touchdowns.

According to Elias Sports Bureau, Gronkowski and quarterback Tom Brady have linked up for the fifth-most touchdowns by a QB-receiver duo in NFL history with 78. Gronkowski reached 1,000 receiving yards four times — one of just four in NFL history to do so.

His 91 touchdown catches were also fifth-most before a player’s birthday in NFL history, and his 0.69 receiving touchdowns per game is considered the fifth-best mark in NFL history (of players with a minimum of 60 games), according to ESPN Statistics & Information.

Even with a year away from football — one doesn’t forget the qualities that made that type of production possible. “I think I did,” Gronkowski said, laughing, before switching to a more serious tone.

“No, I didn’t forget. But every game plan can change differently, week-in and week-out. There’s [been] some times in my career, where you can be targeted 15 times and there’s other times you can targeted just a few. It all depends how the defenses are playing us, how the defenses are lining up against us, who they’re taking away and all that good stuff so, it’s just two weeks into the season so, just gotta go out there and just keep on fighting, just give it my all in whatever aspect of the game it is.”

Coach Bruce Arians did, however, say that the tight end’s role as a receiver in his offense is more about quality over quantity when it comes to catches, and they’ve been happy with his run-blocking and veteran leadership.

“We’re not throwing the ball 50 times to tight ends — that’s what we have receivers for [and] that’s the way our offense is built,” Arians said earlier this week. “Gronk’s playing great run blocking in the fourth quarter, so I’m not concerned with his pass catches or his targets.”

“We haven’t had that many red zone opportunities and I don’t see him running 40 yards past people anymore. If we get him press coverage, hopefully he can. We brought him in to just play tight end. If that means no catches, it means no catches. If it means 10 catches, it means 10 catches because he’s open and that’s where the ball goes.”

When asked to elaborate on the ‘running 40 yards past people’ comment — if it had anything to do with age or declining ability or needing to get in better ‘game shape’ — Arians indicated it was more about his style of play — he wasn’t known as a speed guy who could outrun defenders.

“It never was his forte, but if you’re gonna go up there and bump and run him, that’s a different story,” Arians said. “To just think that he’s gonna run past a corner who runs 4.4 — he’s never done that anyway. It’s not like it’s something new. But he can still go down the field, stretch the field — we had good times on him in practices — he can stretch the field, he’s just not gonna line up wide and run 40-yard balls.”

Could Gronkowski’s role expand the more red zone opportunities the Bucs get? His 650 receiving yards in the red zone are fourth-most of any player at any receiving position, since 2010. His 56 touchdowns in red zone are also second-most of any player at any receiving position since 2010. One would think that it would be a goal to get a player earning $9.8 million for the season, who has won three Super Bowl rings, as many looks as possible.

“Just game-to-game,” said Arians, who doesn’t believe opposing defenses are doing anything to take Gronkowski out of the game. “We came in here with no expectations and just, ‘Hey, whatever happens, happens, just — you play tight end.’ And we’ll see.” Gronkowski said defenses really aren’t doing anything to take him out of the passing game either. Brady, who coaxed Gronkowski out of retirement this offseason, believes it’s just part of the ebb and flow of a season.

“I don’t think we can be discouraged by certain things — some weeks it’s gonna be some guys’ weeks, other weeks, it’s gonna be other guys’ weeks,” Brady said. “Everyone’s working hard at practice to try to find their spot, their role. We gotta figure out what works or what combinations work or what we do well or what we don’t do well. And that’s just part of the season.”

Arians’ offense has never been known for heavy use of the tight end. From 2013-2018, Arians’ Arizona Cardinals had 506 balls thrown to tight ends — the second-fewest targets to tight ends of any team in the league. But some believed it would change given the Bucs’ talent and spending at the position. With Gronkowski, Howard, Cam Brate and Antony Aucliar, the Bucs are spending $18.9 million this year on that position — more than any other team in the league.

In 2019 — Arians’ first head as head coach of the Bucs — their tight ends were targeted 120 times — more than any other team Arians coached in five seasons with the Arizona Cardinals.

Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich believes Gronkowski’s opportunities will come.

“We have good enough players where if we just be organic and put the ball in the right spot, it will start finding [Rob Gronkowski],” said Leftwich, who calls the Bucs’ plays on offense. “The least of my worries is really the ball finding Gronk. There’s things that we have to do better to compete and to win football games that we’re trying to do right now. Getting the ball to him and getting the ball to any specific player is always thought out week in and week out. We can do a better job of putting them in position — we will — and we’re all just starting to make plays across the board.”

Despite the lack of looks from Brady and lack of production, Gronkowski, whose career was marred by injuries, said he’s enjoying playing football again. He and Brady have an internet show produced by the Buccaneers called “Tommy and Gronky,” and this week’s episode featured Brady telling Gronk ‘dad jokes.’ In one of them, Brady asked, “Why couldn’t the pony sing?” Gronkowski responded, “Oh, oh, because he was a little hoarse!”

Gronkowski’s also helped rookie right tackle Tristian Wirfs with his blocking technique and he’s enjoyed giving fellow tight end O.J. Howard advice on building a career after football, which Gronkowski has done through television.

“It’s been going good. There’s times when you’re working and you’re grinding and digging deep to get through things — I mean, that’s not usually he joyous time, when you’re digging deep but that’s part of football and that’s part of what you signed up for,” Gronkowski said. “But then many other times, we’re just going out there and just playing ball and just being yourself so…It’s going good overall. There are a lot of great guys on the team that are a pleasure to be around that, that are a pleasure to work with — the same with the coaches so all that’s going good, man. We’ve just gotta keep putting the work in week-in and week-out.”

“I’m enjoying myself,” Gronkowski said. I know what I signed up for with football so I know there’s times where it’s gonna be a grind — it’s the game of football, there’s always gonna be ups and downs — hands down about that. I mean, that’s football. It’s been like that my whole life…but just going out there and working with the guys — it’s a pleasure for sure.”


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast


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