The Gronk/Brady retirement conversation this offseason is like a beach ball in the bleachers.

First launched skyward by Gronk in the minutes after the Super Bowl, the flight pattern is fast and wild in the first few feet, then it hits its apex, descends softly and slowly . . . nearly stops . . . then the next punch sends the subject skyward again.

ESPN’s Jeff Darlington got the latest fist in on the topic with a report Saturday night. Gronk hasn’t made a decision yet, a source told Darlington. But the tight end is “pretty certain” he’ll return if Tom Brady does. The story was ostensibly about Gronk.

But that qualifier . . . 

“If” Tom Brady returns?

This is what we’re getting time and again. Allusions to stepping away. Not just related to (or directly from) Gronk, but from Brady as well.

Whether it’s the public statement made by Gotham Chopra two weeks ago that “these next few weeks and months are a really critical time for [Brady],” Brady’s “why am I here” existential crisis in Tom vs. Time, the ditching of the “45 or bust” mantra, or private conversations I’ve had with sources, there is no 100 percent guarantee either or both players will be back.

And until we get them, the beach ball stays aloft and every outcome remains in play.

Darlington’s report follows Robert Kraft’s pooh-poohing of Gronk’s retirement last week. Kraft, instead of saying he was either A) confident or B) not confident Gronk would be back, wistfully said we should all want to come back as Gronk in our next life. He added that it was awesome to see Gronk on Shaq’s shoulders at a club recently.


Who’s kidding who? The shoulders of a 7-foot-3 human is actually one of the last places one would like to see a pivotal player who’s had multiple back surgeries and ended the season coming out of concussion protocol.

But we suspended disbelief and plowed forward with the interview as if we believed the shoulder-riding, Mojo Rawley-nuzzling, brand-advancing, cryptic-tweeting and hopes for departed teammates to be “HAPPY!” and “FREE!” were just as adorable to management/ownership as they are to people who aren’t relying on him to come to work for the 2018 season.

And that’s the thing. This is the 2018 season. The first phase of voluntary offseason workouts (strength and conditioning) begins two weeks from today. OTAs are in a month. The Patriots have famously gotten phenomenal attendance at these events and we’ve dutifully noted that Brady’s presence puts the heat on every other player to show up as well. On time. Ready to go. Voluntary or not. It’s the tone-setter.

Sources within the organization have characterized the disillusionment of Brady and Gronk as being completely quarantined. They are on an island. The other coaches and players aren’t bristling about an uncomfortable environment, thudding negativity, or the never-ending mind games. It’s not Shangri-La. It’s closer to Parris Island. But it’s always been that way so who really changed?

Meanwhile, you’re Bill Belichick and watching this offseason of indiscreet discontent and thinking to yourself, “What’s my move here? Do I throw Gronk another pile of incentives to sweeten up his contract and get him to dummy up for a while? Does Brady want more money? I can knock his cap down.”

Then you remember you’re Bill Belichick and that’s the motherscratching opposite of what you normally do. So you think about trading Gronk.

Then you think about the further fallout with the quarterback. And the fact that -- if Gronk is already babbling about retirement -- he isn’t going to report to whatever Godforsaken outpost you ship him to. And you realize that, if Brady is already waffling about his future, why would you extend him past 2019? To save money against a cap that really isn’t even an issue right now?

The beach ball . . . it just keeps soaring up . . . and hovering. Somebody’s got to take a pen to it at some point