ATLANTA — Give Rob Gronkowski credit, the man can defend against retirement questions a lot better than he can defend against Miami receivers. Unlike his quarterback, though, he refused to close the door on the possibility that he’s just days from his final NFL game.
Gronkowski and Tom Brady held down the two most popular podiums at Monday’s Opening Night to Super Bowl LIII, each claiming the attention of dozens of reporters and cameras. Each knows exactly the part to play to satisfy their Brand, to play their part in the ongoing, multi-year performance of The Patriot Way.
For his part, Gronk fulfilled his role as Axe Body Spray In Human Form, gyrating before his media session and playing the role of partying uberbro during it.
— NFL (@NFL) January 29, 2019
Brady, on the other hand, was the epitome of benevolent badass, the perpetual champion who could afford to throw a little love down to his critics, scuttling around so far below.
— NFL (@NFL) January 29, 2019
“What do we do with the haters?” he asked in response to a little kid’s question. “We love ‘em. We love ‘em. We love ‘em back, ‘cause we don’t hate back.” That’s the kind of generosity of spirit you can afford when you’ve got five rings. Gronk probably would’ve recommended getting them drunk.
But here’s the crucial difference between the two: Brady insisted on Sunday that there was “zero” chance he’d retire after the Super Bowl, win or lose. Gronkowski, though, refused to give any kind of assurance he’d be back next season.
“As of right now, that’s one of the last things I’m thinking about,” Gronkowski said. “I love playing the game. … A few weeks down the road, you relax, you get some downtime, enjoyment time and you just see where you want to go with it.”
That’s not even within shouting distance of “yes, I’ll be back in 2019,” Gronk.
Pressed on what’s involved in the calculation, Gronkowski bobbed and wove. “I haven’t got that far,” he told Yahoo Sports, his Belichick-trained feet firmly beneath him. “This is a huge week, Super Bowl week. That’s the last thing I’m thinking about. Just gotta keep on grinding.”
Compare that with Brady, who told ESPN’s Jeff Darlington there was “zero” chance of him retiring after Sunday, no matter what goes down:
— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) January 27, 2019
Of course, when you’re playing as well as Brady, why even consider retirement? He wasn’t in contention for an MVP; Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes saw to that. But Brees and Mahomes are watching this Super Bowl from the same perspective as you, and Brady’s gearing up for yet another run at a Lombardi Trophy. He threw for 4,355 yards and 29 touchdowns against 11 interceptions, quality numbers even for a guy 10 years younger.
Thing is, he piled up those numbers without a lot of help from his bruising tight end. Gronkowski had a down year by his standards, compiling only 682 yards receiving — fourth on the team — and three touchdowns. He remains a difficult matchup for any single defender — the Kansas City Chiefs secondary will be having nightmares about No. 87 until September — but was his relatively unreliable production an anomaly or the new normal?
Gronkowski has one more year and $9 million remaining on his current contract. On the other hand, he’s taken plenty of hits over the course of his career. Plus he’s got a world of post-football options just waiting for him, most involving a beach, thumping music and varying degrees of sobriety.
Gronkowski nearly retired last season rather than play for the Lions, and there’s no indication that this year has given him any more fire to return for another run, even one in red, white and blue. So while Brady soldiers on — he was nine years into his run with New England before Gronk showed up, and he’ll probably be there long after Gronk’s gone — the freakiest tight end ever to play the game could be at the end of his string.
Patriots fans may want to take a long, loving look at the Brady-to-Gronk connection on Sunday. It just might be the final time they see the big lug in a Pats uni.
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