Complexity of Gronk situation reflects bigger issues facing Patriots

Tom E. Curran
NBC Sports Boston

At some point, Rob Gronkowski has to articulate what the endgame is.

Because what we've got now is a wildcat strike being carried out by a guy who is wavering about continuing to play because he's A) concerned about his long-term health, B) unfairly compensated or C) weary of the stifling atmosphere under Bill Belichick.

The streetlights have come on, Gronk's dinner's already been scraped into the garbage, all the other kids are upstairs doing their homework and Gronk still hasn't come home. It's getting dark.

We've all been reduced out here to reading smoke signals on social media.

The latest was a retweet of a Deion Sanders mini-rant:

OK, so it's about money. But is it also about atmosphere and culture? Is it about being "FREE" and "HAPPY" as Gronk implored Danny Amendola to be when the wide receiver lit out for Miami?

Well, yes it is.

Part of Gronk's off-field brand is built on the premise he's an oversized pubescent dope who blunders into soft-core trouble because he just can't help himself. And Bill Belichick has been the perfect foil for that persona, playing Sergeant Carter to Gronk's Gomer Pyle while Tom Brady's the big brother/protector who'd love to act out like Gronk but just doesn't have it in him.

But the joke, apparently, isn't as funny as it used to be. Or maybe it never really was. Whatever the case, there's no mistaking that, over the past year, we've seen the most vocal and obvious uprising against Belichick's "Do Your Job" "No Days Off" iron-fist rule.

It was one thing when it was Adalius Thomas was sending verbal harpoons at Belichick a decade ago, or Randy Moss using his postgame press conference to whine about his contract in 2010, or Wes Welker making foot jokes, or Logan Mankins calling out the owner.

The pushback now is being led by Brady. And it's not about one thing, it's about everything. It's about the culture. A culture we've all celebrated for nearly two decades as being the reason the Patriots from 2001 through 2019 will be the standard by which all American sports dynasties are measured.

But when the player whose buy-in is most important -- Brady -- begins an open revolt, then what? What changed? Who changed? How many teammates agree with him? What next?

In Tom vs. Time, Gisele Bundchen stated that her husband just wants to go to work and have "fun" and be "appreciated." The inference is obvious. He isn't feeling either of those. And the fact he took the initiative to get that out there (though it would be most effective if he articulated it clearly himself) emboldened others.

Gronk is the one most obviously emboldened and his situation is ongoing.

But Dion Lewis, Danny Amendola and Nate Solder -- all free agents who departed this offseason -- laced their praise of the Patriots program with laments about how hard it was to play here.

Solder:

Before I tell you what happened next, I need to let you know a little about what it's really like playing for the Patriots.
It can be a tough environment. It's very businesslike, and at times it can be cold. Everything in New England is predicated on performance. It's a place where people sometimes treat you differently based on how you practiced that day or how you answered a question in a meeting. One day, you could walk around the facility feeling like a Pro Bowler - the next, like you're about to get cut.
I don't mean that to sound harsh or negative. It's also an incredible place to play, and I'm grateful for the years I spent there. It's just that it could be tough sometimes. The Patriots have set a standard, and the pressure is very real. That's the culture they've built - a winning culture - and it's why they've been so successful.

Amendola:

"I understand Bill [Belichick] runs a tight ship, and he hasn't been known to pay his players, really. I understood that I gave money back to him so I could play for him and play for my teammates and fulfill my side of the contract, and at the end of the day, I had faith that he was going to give me an opportunity to stay,"
"It's not easy, that's for sure. He's an a--h--- sometimes. There were a lot of things I didn't like about playing for him, but I must say, the things I didn't like were all in regards to getting the team better, and I respected him. I didn't like practicing in the snow, I didn't like practicing in the rain, but that was going to make us a better football team and that was going to make me a better football player. It wasn't easy, and he'd be the first to admit, at the [Super Bowl] ring ceremony, that it wasn't easy playing for him. The silver lining was that we were at the ring ceremony."

Lewis:

"I just wanted to be a place where I felt comfortable and felt wanted. That's what I felt (in Tennessee) so I'm going to work to make this situation right."

Obviously, we've all known that the grind in New England has always been very real. But the fact so many players are speaking on it is unusual.

Still, if the "cultural issues" were confined to a few very important players growing weary of Belichick's bedside manner, it would easier to believe the problem was easy to quarantine.

But Amendola's comments to Mike Reiss on the Super Bowl benching of Malcolm Butler hint at a more widely-shared belief on the team that Belichick's iron fist did real damage.

"I have my thoughts about it because I was out there putting my blood, sweat and tears out on the field that night, and one of our best players wasn't on the field," he said. "To tell you the truth, I don't know why. I did ask, but I didn't get any answers. I can't make decisions like that, so I don't necessarily worry about it, but I know Malcolm is a great player and he could have helped us win. For whatever reason, he wasn't out there . . .

 "Nobody really got an explanation for it. He's a brother of ours. He was a brother of ours that year. And I hate to see a guy who worked so hard throughout the season not get a chance to play in the biggest game of the year and really get no explanation for it. With that said, I don't know how the business aspect went into that decision. I don't know how the personal aspect went into that decision between him and Bill. But as a friend, I would have loved to see him on the field that day."

If Brady, Gronk and assorted other Patriots are pissed at the exile of Alex Guerrero or find their off-field "brand" stifled, that's an issue but it doesn't really rise to tearing at the fabric of the team.

And it's not breaking news that the Patriots can be tight with the contractual dollar and really demanding on their employees. That's barely an issue.  

But Amendola's comments on Butler make it clear that he felt -- at the very least -- let down by the decision to bench Butler. At worst, he felt betrayed.

If one of the Patriots' most loyal soldiers of the past six seasons felt that way, how many others feel that badly or worse?

The 2018 season unofficially begins this week with voluntary workouts. But it feels like there's still so much unfinished business left to address from 2017.

Maybe that's why the reason for Gronk's absence and pinning down his endgame is so difficult.

It's a little bit of everything.

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