FOXBORO -- Tom Brady has been very open about how he plans on playing in 2019 and beyond, but his tight end wasn't exactly ready to make the same kind of proclamation Thursday.
"Oh, I mean I haven't been thinking about that at all," Rob Gronkowski said when asked about his football future. "We're on the last game, going into Week 17. We got the Jets and that's all I'm really worried about as of now."
Gronkowski got introspective later in his press conference, however, hitting on everything from why he continues to enjoy football, to how he's managed his emotions during what he's admitted has been a challenging season.
Going into the regular-season finale, Gronkowski has 45 catches for 658 yards and three touchdowns. The Patriots added $4.3 million in incentives to Gronkowski's contract in the offseason, including $1 million in per-game bonuses and $3.3 million if he reached certain statistical measures.
Gronkowski won't hit any of those statistical markers as he's on track to record his lowest yards-per-game number (54.8) since his rookie season (34.1). If he doesn't score against the Jets, he'll tie a career low for touchdowns.
"I would say every season presents a different challenge," Gronkowski said. "You go through things. You get dinged up a little bit, different challenge. Come back from something. Come back from something different. Every season brings its own little challenges and you just gotta keep on grinding, keep on staying positive, gotta stay focused. You can't ever get down, too down. Then you just dig yourself a bigger hole."
There were times this year when Gronkowski didn't do all that good a job of hiding the fact that he was down. He admitted after a Week 3 loss to the Lions that the Patriots tried to trade him in the offseason, but said defiantly that he wouldn't be playing with any quarterback other than Tom Brady. He thanked Brady for throwing to him late in a win over the Chiefs in Week 5, and Brady went out of his way to laud Gronkowski after the fact in what seemed like an attempt to boost his teammate's spirits. Gronkowski walked out on a press conference on Halloween when he was asked about his confidence level.
Gronkowski has been on and off the injury report with back and ankle issues this season. When it comes to playing through injuries or coming back from an injury, he acknowledged that the mental hurdles are significant to overcome.
"It's definitely a challenge," he said. "That's probably 50 percent of it. Yeah, you can have the physical tools and everything. 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 just gotta stay positive."
On the Ex-Pats Podcast recently, Gronkowski's former teammate Rob Ninkovich pointed out just how difficult it must be for Gronkowski to deal with the way he's been playing when he's used to having such lofty expectations thrust upon him.
"It's gotta be mentally challenging," Ninkovich said. "I think people forget about that. The mental side of things. It's very, very hard to play with pain. It's very hard to manage expectations when you're expected to be a Hall of Famer or the best of the best and every week you gotta be lights out. It's hard to manage all those cards when you're just a man . . . People have unrealistic expectations of what Rob should be now."
Gronkowski has been very open about how he's changed his training habits in recent years -- he's doing fewer "meatheaded things" now, according to teammate Devin McCourty -- but by the sounds of it Gronkowski has also tried to change the way he thinks about his game in order to remain more optimistic.
"You learn a lot of things every single year about yourself as you get older on how you adapt to things," he said. "You just learn that you gotta stay positive. You can never get too down on yourself. Yeah, you can get down on yourself a little bit to get you re-motivated and stuff but you never want . . . That's happened to me before. You get too down and you dig yourself a bigger hole. You just gotta stay balanced.
"It's a roller coaster season as you guys have seen all year. But whenever things aren't going right, you just gotta stay positive and keep going and keep doing what you need to do and you know you'll bounce back."
McCourty said Thursday that the way Gronkowski has bounced back from different ailments over the course of his career has illustrated how dedicated the tight end has been to his craft.
"I would say for a lot of guys, it’s something to watch," McCourty said. "We got drafted together. No matter what it was – forearm, knee – like he’s always been in here grinding. I would say going though injury, if you needed someone to watch on how they prepare each day in practice whether he’s on the side doing different exercises, like he’s always doing something to try to get his body ready to practice and for the game.
"I think he’s been a guy to watch and see what he does. He never complains about something hurting or not being able to do – like he just does what he can do and when he’s coming back from an injury, usually it’s a little more each day. Obviously, you guys see he’s been one of the best tight ends since he entered the league. I think his leadership and how hard he works has stuck out more to guys in the locker room than I think people outside the building talk about."
McCourty also pointed out that Gronkowski's attitude, the one that Gronkowski has worked to keep upbeat this season, is one from which the entire locker room benefits.
"He’s still laughing, joking, he’s still a kid, and I think that’s good," McCourty said. "I think it’s good for the team to have guys like that in the locker room. Sometimes around here, things are hard, we practice hard and it’s hard days. Bill [Belichick]’s not laughing often, so having guys like that helps in the locker room."
Asked if he would like to play as long as Brady is still playing, Gronkowski said that was "the last thing on my mind right now." But he did say that for this season, he's going to give the Patriots what he can.
"I love the grind," he said. "I'm all-in. I've been all-in all season. No matter if it's been up, if it's been down. I'm gonna tell you this right now: I'm gonna be all-in the rest of the year no matter what it is. That's just my main focus, no matter how it goes."
Gronkowski insisted he still enjoys the game, first and foremost because of the time it allows him to spend with his teammates.
"I would say that's a lot of players' [favorite thing] is just having a locker room," he said. "Being around the guys. Having good times, being out in practice, cracking some jokes, making plays. Just having that team bond, being with everyone is always something special . . .
"You gotta [enjoy it]. It's a long season. You got training camp. All of the regular season, you got preseason games. All that. You gotta keep it light. You gotta enjoy your time. No matter how games go up or down, you gotta keep focused, keep it going. Which we have been. We've been through a roller coaster, up and down throughout the whole season. What you gotta do is stay focused and keep preparing and mentally and physically just keep grinding and keep going."
For how much longer Gronkowski keeps going is anyone's guess. His base salary bumps up to $9 million in 2019 -- the final year of his contract -- and his cap hit will reach $12 million.
For this season, at least, playing through whatever it is he's playing through, he'll try to finish with a optimistic approach -- just as he did Thursday's presser.
"I'm back on the roller coaster baby," he said. "I'm going. And I'm here for the ride. See ya!"
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