FOXBORO - Rob Gronkowski’s precipitous production drop this season has been chalked up to injured body parts, injured feelings and an injured psyche.
Which one is most responsible for turning a player who received 40 of the 50 All-Pro votes at tight end in 2017 into a lumbering, introspective shell of himself in 2018?
It probably depends on the week.
But reality is that (arguably) the greatest tight end in NFL history has almost overnight turned from a big, goofy yellow lab that loved to play into a hard-to-rouse dog that gets off the couch once in a while and chases balls only when body and spirit allow.
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We’ve gasbagged all season on the “why” of it.
Most of the year, I’ve maintained that this is a temporary thing.
The guy that was the best player on the field in the opener against Houston, that made the pivotal plays in the heart-stopping win over Kansas City, that caught all eight passes sent his way against the Dolphins while absorbing punishment that would have left Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz in traction, he hasn’t gone anywhere.
The guy that didn’t catch a pass against the Bills last week and had a simple throw from Tom Brady clang off his hands and turn into a pick? The guy that’s flailed around too often trying to block? Imposter.
But – with the regular-season finale coming Sunday and a most uncertain postseason looming – it’s time to gauge what 2018 means to Gronk’s future here.
An iconic player who will wind up in both the Patriots Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame is almost done here.
If we were giving injury report designations to predict, he’d either be “doubtful” or “out.”
There’s a year left on his much-discussed and often-reworked contract.
He’s due to make $9 million in base salary in 2019.
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The team tried to trade him last offseason when he went on wildcat strike from voluntary offseason workouts – and that was after what might have been the best season of his career – but Gronk said, “Hell, no, I won’t go.”
The Patriots sweetened his contract in late August, not with a direct pay bump but with $4.3M in incentives. With no leverage, he grudgingly agreed to them. Now he won’t come within hailing distance of achieving any of them.
The years-long bitterness about being underpaid relative to other pass-catchers led to a lot of this. Gronk agreed to a deal that was great for him in 2012 but which became team-friendly in the extreme when the Patriots picked up his option in March of 2016.
Over time, Gronk went from being a dutiful employee to one who couldn’t escape the fact the bosses were getting over on him. And if they weren’t going to do what he and his advisors felt was “the right thing,” Gronk would start putting himself first a little more.
That led to friction in the 2017 offseason which stretched into the regular season even as he was playing out of his mind.
When it carried over into the 2018 offseason and Gronk got more over-the-top about thumbing his nose at Patriots authority, the team said, “Enough...” and tried to move him.
That changed the equation from, “they don’t treat me well and I’m mad” to “they don’t want me around and I’m mad and sad.”
And that’s preyed on his mind all season. As indestructible as “Gronk” is on the field, “Rob” is a sensitive person whose feelings hurt as much this year as his back and ankle.
It’s been hard for him to get his mind around putting his already-banged-up body in extreme danger for pennies on the dollar.
Because he knows what injury, surgery, uncertainty and the specter of permanent physical damage feels like.
On Friday, Gronk acknowledged the mind-churn this season has been for him.
“I would say that’s probably 50 percent of it,” he admitted. “I mean, yeah, you can have the physical tools and everything, but if you’re not mentally there all the way then you’re not going to be able to use the physical tools how you want to use them.
“Definitely, you’ve just got to stay positive,” he continued. “You learn a lot of things every single year about yourself as you get older about how you adapt to things. You just learn that you’ve got to stay positive. You can never get too down on yourself. I mean, yeah, you can get down on yourself a little bit to get you re-motivated and stuff, but I’ve learned.
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“That has happened to me before – you get too down and you dig yourself a bigger hole,” he said. “You’ve just got to stay balanced. It’s a roller coaster season, as you guys have seen all year, but whenever things aren’t going right you’ve just got to stay positive and keep going, keep doing what you need to do and you know you’ll bounce back.”
I don’t know if Rob Gronkowski will look like Gronk between now and the end of this Patriots season. It’s clear he’s trying to marshal the resolve necessary to make that happen.
But this game against the Jets could very well be the last regular-season game he plays in Foxboro. And we may be down to the final few games of his career.
He may go quietly, the end more a flip of the football to an official than a turf-shaking spike. Or he may roll back the clock and render this column useless.
Either way, attention should be paid. Something like Gronk will never pass this way again.
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