Rob Gronkowski made his debut as a TV analyst Thursday, but he also made it sound as if he could be strapping his pads back on before the NFL season is over.

“I’ll always keep the door open," the recently retired tight end said of a possible comeback while speaking with his Fox Sports colleagues.

Gronkowski stepped away from football in March after capping his nine-year career by helping the New England Patriots win their third Super Bowl title since he joined them as a second-round draft pick in 2010. The five-time Pro Bowl selection suffered more than his share of injuries, but he may be the greatest tight end in NFL history, and Patriots owner Robert Kraft made it clear Thursday that he would welcome Gronkowski back.

“We all love Gronk, and I think the bottom line is, he hasn’t put his retirement papers in,” Kraft said on NFL Network before his team took on the New York Giants. “So we can always pray and hope."

“That’s a good academic argument that there is hope for us still with Gronk,” he added.

It’s not the first time that Gronkowski has suggested his retirement might be short-lived. In August, he said, “When that time comes down in the future, if I have the desire to play football again, if I feel passionate about football again, if I’m feeling like I need to be out there on the field, I will go back to football."

Gronkowski also grew emotional while discussing his decision to halt his career, at least temporarily.

Football was bringing me down. And I didn’t like it,” he said then, explaining that the game’s physical toll had become more than he wanted to bear.

“I was hurt both mentally and physically, day in and day out,” Gronkowski said then. “I decided to walk away from the game for one reason: I had to recover.”

With some time to recover, as well as time to watch football from his couch, Gronkowski apparently has been reminded of a few of the things he enjoys about the sport.

“I love playing the game. I love being around the game. I even love watching the game of football now," he said Thursday to Fox Sports’s Terry Bradshaw, Michael Strahan and Tony Gonzalez. “ … Just seeing the hits, seeing the glory of it — you understand the game so much more, why fans love the game so much more."

Not surprisingly, Gronkowski’s debut as a professional talker didn’t come without moments that elicited a reaction online, particularly when he launched into an explanation of why New England wide receiver Julian Edelman refers to himself as “The Squirrel."

“He’s furry. He’s cute. He’s elusive. He’s feisty,” Gronkowski said of his former teammate and close friend. “And most importantly, whenever he gets a chance, he gets that nut.

“Just like he gets you that first down,” Gronkowski continued, his voice rising. “Just like he gets the touchdown. Just like he’ll give you a catch when you need it.”

In Gronkowski’s absence, the Patriots could use another catch or two from their tight ends: That position has accounted for just nine receptions this season, for 169 yards and a touchdown over six games.

Of course, New England has won all six of those games, including by a 35-14 margin over the Giants on Thursday, so the team isn’t necessarily desperate for Gronk to return. However, quarterback Tom Brady appears to be showing his age just a bit and the receiving corps is thin and, outside of Edelman and running back James White, relatively untested.

It seems prudent for Gronkowski to wait a few more weeks to see how his TV career goes, and then potentially rejoin the Patriots late in the season. At that point, at least in theory, he could have skipped most of a punishing regular season while arriving in time for another run at a championship.

If nothing else, as viewers learned Thursday, the door remains open, giving hope to Kraft and New England fans everywhere.

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