But Gronkowski is still relatively young, even in football terms: He turns 30 in May. At some point, maybe his aches and pains won’t seem quite so debilitating. The lure of football undoubtedly will remain strong. The Patriots probably will be back in the running for yet another Super Bowl next season. What if he could, say, miss training camp and a portion of the regular season and return to play the games that matter most?
There are some in and around the league who wondered Sunday, even as Gronkowski’s contributions were being celebrated by the Patriots and others, whether he really is done with football. Fellow tight end Jason Witten has returned to the Dallas Cowboys after a season in ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” broadcast booth. What’s to stop Gronkowski from making his retirement similarly temporary?
Gronkowski’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, said Monday on ESPN that “If the team was struggling or they needed him at some point next year, and let’s just say hypothetically Tom Brady gave him a call and said ‘Rob, I need you,’ I wouldn’t be shocked if he came back to play a few games.” But Rosenhaus emphasized that he was just speculating and that “it’s unlikely that he will ever play football again.”
The Patriots will move on from Gronkowski as best they can. That’s what Coach Bill Belichick does. He has discarded very good Patriots players throughout their dynastic run, always finding a way to keep the victories piling up.
But this might be different. Gronkowski has been a mainstay of the second half of the Patriots’ dynasty. He is a three-time Super Bowl champion, a four-time all-pro and a five-time Pro Bowl selection. Other than Brady, few players have meant more to the Patriots’ success.
Brady has made things work with underwhelming wide receivers, less-than-productive running games and ineffective offensive lines. He has been able to compensate in seasons when the New England defense hasn’t been the best. But for the past nine seasons, Brady always has been able to exploit one mismatch, at least whenever Gronkowski has been healthy and on the field.
It can’t last forever, no matter how much Belichick and Brady make it seem like it can. The end is in sight for the Patriots. Brady was still a very good quarterback this past season at age 41. But he wasn’t the league MVP that he’d been before.
He turns 42 in August. Belichick turns 67 in April. They are the constants. But now they’ve lost a leading member of the supporting cast. If Gronkowski really stays away, the next championship for Belichick, Brady and the Patriots — if there is a next championship — would be the most wondrous of all.