Retirements of Rob Gronkowski and Andrew Luck, and Ezekiel Elliott's holdout show new normal in NFL

Dan WetzelColumnist

The NFL is about to start its season without one of its best quarterbacks (Andrew Luck)running backs (Ezekiel Elliott) and tight ends (Rob Gronkowski).

Three different stars not playing for three different reasons, yet enough of a commonality that this could be a milepost of sorts for where football is headed.

In the end it comes down to worth – the worth, especially financially, that the NFL can bestow on a player and in turn the worth, especially mentally and emotionally, a player bestows on himself.

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Make no mistake, the NFL – and all sports – have long had early retirements (Luck and Gronk) and contract holdouts (Zeke). None of this is new, per se. This isn’t some claim that the football sky is falling.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t representative of a new day and a new way of thinking.

The last game of Rob Gronkowski's career was Super Bowl LIII, a game he suffered a painful quad injury. "After the game, I could barely walk," Gronkowski said on Tuesday. "I tried to go to bed [after the party] and I slept for five minutes. I couldn’t even think, I was in tears in my bed after the Super Bowl victory. That didn’t make sense to me." (AP)
The last game of Rob Gronkowski's career was Super Bowl LIII, a game he suffered a painful quad injury. "After the game, I could barely walk," Gronkowski said on Tuesday. "I tried to go to bed [after the party] and I slept for five minutes. I couldn’t even think, I was in tears in my bed after the Super Bowl victory. That didn’t make sense to me." (AP)

Luck stunned the league by retiring Saturday at age 29 rather than attempt to rehab from his latest injury. He cited mental and emotional exhaustion at the endless cycle of rehab that had consumed his career.

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Gronkowski called it quits in the offseason at age 29 (he’s now 30) in part due to injuries. Yet Tuesday he noted that he was currently healthy enough to play physically, just not mentally. If that changed, maybe he’d return.

Elliott is 100 percent ready physically and mentally to return to the Dallas Cowboys. He’s 24 but after three years as a workhorse, he’s seeking a big-money contract and is, he says, willing to sit out a season or even two to get it (he has two years left on his rookie deal).

All of it boils down, in part, to money – Gronk and Luck don’t need more of it, and Elliott isn’t going to risk injury until he’s on the road to their situations.

Luck and Gronk are basically out because players (in line with much of society) are beginning to value mental health the same way they do physical health. This is overdue, especially in the NFL, where stories of post-career struggles and heartbreak have long been commonplace. Suicides, bankruptcies, divorces, violence, erratic behavior and so on have been a plague. Many, many players make it out. Others don’t.

It appears both men recognize that there is more to life than sacrificing everything to get on the field.

“I was not in a good place,” Gronkowski said Tuesday. “Football was bringing me down and I didn’t like it. I was losing that joy in life.”

“I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live,” Luck said on Saturday.

Yet part of the reason they could make that choice is because modern contracts are so huge, neither needing the game the way past generations did.

Gronk made about $54 million in salary alone, according to overthecap.com. There were additional millions in endorsements. And the fame the NFL provided has set him up for all sorts of post-playing careers, from pro wrestling to movies to the fitness industry. Tuesday he announced a new CBD company he is working with, promoting a product he says has made him pain-free.

Andrew Luck is walking away from football with at least $100 million. (Getty Images)
Andrew Luck is walking away from football with at least $100 million. (Getty Images)

Luck, meanwhile, made about $109 million, per overthecap.com. There were additional endorsements as well, and with a Stanford degree he isn’t going to be hurting for work or opportunities.

Money can’t buy happiness but it does buy freedom. Football had given each of them generational wealth. They can walk away for good and never care about money. Or they can take a year or two off. Who knows.

And that’s where Elliott plays in. The money is so great in football, and the violence and injury risk so considerable, that a player doesn’t necessarily need to play every game or even every year to make it big.

It’s possible that Elliott is looking at trying to play six or seven seasons before he is 30, maximizing the amount of money he makes before he is too old and tired to continue to earn.

In the past, holdouts rarely worked because the player was desperate to collect checks during a brief playing career. But now the smart play might be to make as much possible, even if that means taking time away from the game.

Elliott is approaching his career sort of like a prize fighter who has made a name for himself. He can wait for the right purse to come along rather than just taking every bout, and the risk associated with it, that is presented to them.

Just as a boxer only has so many fights in him, a running back only has so many carries (or hits taken). Fighting/playing less, for more, is the way to go.

Le’Veon Bell sat out the entire 2018 Pittsburgh season in a contract dispute only to land a deal with the New York Jets that could pay him $52.5 million over four seasons. One less year of mileage on the tires is a good thing, not a bad one.

As such, Zeke wants out of the rookie deal with Dallas that pays him just $3.85 million this season. He is seeking a huge deal that is commensurate with his value to a Super Bowl contender and can set him up the way Gronkowski and Luck are while he still has the legs to be demand it.

Mostly though, all three are currently out because they recognize their worth – both in negotiations and in protecting their wellness – and are making more aggressive and decisive moves in career planning.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but as the season is set to begin without them, it sure feels like the new normal in the NFL, which will have to adapt to a new way of dealing with some of its biggest stars.

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