Rob Gronkowski’s NFL return says it all: the Patriots breakup is a Bill Belichick story

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

In Rob Gronkowski’s way, he spent the majority of the 2019 season telling us everything we needed to know about why he wasn’t on the football field with the New England Patriots.

He used physical and mental descriptors like tired, beaten up, drained, joyless. And in between, he took jabs at Bill Belichick’s Patriot Way, occasionally expressing relief over his “retirement” from a mission-first, enjoyment-last existence. A kind of culture that achieved greatness, but also exacted a toll. By the time Gronkowski left the Patriots, very little of this was a secret. In fact, we have often celebrated Belichick’s single-minded and ruthless prioritization of winning.

Now that the Patriots’ dynasty has officially been dismantled, we’re figuring out that the unthinkable end is ultimately a Belichick story. One where quarterback Tom Brady, team owner Robert Kraft and a litany of other stars (including Gronkowski) were merely significant characters in a history-making narrative about a head coach. A relentless Hall of Famer who will be remembered as the greatest ever at his craft — but also the architect of his dynasty’s demise.

Rob Gronkowski wasn't through with football, just with Bill Belichick and the Patriot Way. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Rob Gronkowski wasn't through with football, just with Bill Belichick and the Patriot Way. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Belichick has always been the sun, fueling the center of the New England universe. Eventually, the uncompromising intensity of his mission burns out everything orbiting him. The result is a turnstile of high-profile players, with the end always seeming to come awkwardly or coldly or unbelievably. Just like Brady and a litany of talent before him. And just like Gronkowski, whose return to the NFL speaks as loudly as Brady’s New England exodus one month ago.

As it turns out, Gronk didn’t bail on football in 2019. He didn’t even bail on New England. In reality, his one season away from the game was a flight to freedom from Belichick. That’s undeniable now, with Gronkowski sitting out for a season and then demanding a trade to join Brady in Tampa Bay. Like Brady’s departure, it can be spun in a few directions and it surely will be. The fact remains that neither the Patriots’ Hall of Fame quarterback or Hall of Fame tight end wanted to finish their careers under Belichick.

In hindsight, maybe this whole unraveling started last offseason, when Gronkowski cleared his locker and bounced. Once he tunneled his way out of the franchise, maybe it was only a matter of time before Brady looked around in 2019 and started to think about life on the other side of the Patriots wall. One year later, it’s basically the NFL Films answer to “Shawshank Redemption” — with Brady and Gronkowski blissfully reuniting on a beach in Tampa Bay.

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Lest we forget, it’s not the first time the pair has locked arms with each other in defiance of Belichick. They infamously drew the Hoodie’s ire in 2018, when both were using Brady’s trainer, Alex Guerrero, to rehab injuries outside of the guidance of New England’s medical staff. And both continuously had each other’s backs in the toughest of times — whether it was Gronkowski’s struggles with injuries or Brady’s Deflategate fiasco or simply the never-ending grind of living inside a Belichick regime.

The bond was strong enough that when Gronkowski sat out in 2019, some of his most impassioned comments often provided a backdrop for Brady’s emotions. At times during last season, Gronkowski was sharing criticisms of the Patriot Way that would be telling about Brady’s mindset, if not downright prescient when it came to the unfathomable divorce that took place this offseason.

That included a moment of clarity after a 9-1 Patriots start, when Brady had a news conference after a win over the Philadelphia Eagles and the quarterback seemed to be bordering on miserable. After seeing that, Gronkowski shared a thought that now seems like it had far more gravity than anyone realized at the time.

“He’s so frustrated, too,” Gronkowski said on a Fox Sports pregame show, after seeing Brady’s demeanor following the Patriots’ Week 11 win. “It’s like, ‘Yo, you guys are 9-1.’ That’s one part I don’t miss about being [in New England]. Hands down. I’m not going to lie. I don’t miss that. They’re frustrated. They’re 9-1. They win a game against Philly last week. We lost to them two years ago in the Super Bowl. They should be happy. Instead, you’re sitting there Sunday night thinking, ‘What did I do wrong?’ No, that’s not the feeling you should be having. But you won the game. Enjoy it. Go out next week, and build off it.”

Those comments made it seem more likely than ever that Gronkowski wasn’t going to be returning to the Patriots in 2019 — if ever. It turned out they explained a lot about the mindset Belichick often instituted to win. Players always described it as unrelenting. Right up to the point when a player was either picking confetti out of his hair or preparing for a parade in Boston.

In the years that didn’t end in a title — like 2019 — that soul-sucking process proved to be extremely hard to endure for guys like Gronkowski and Brady. Either because they weren’t having fun or weren’t getting their salaries blown out or had a tougher time recovering physically and mentally to commit to that existence all over again.

None of this is to say Belichick is the villain in this whole thing. His genius over the past 20 years is undeniable. And the six Super Bowl wins he delivered to New England are the payoff that balances the collateral damage when stars depart or are tossed aside. Indeed, in times like this, you could argue the championships are the only thing that makes a painful ending Brady and Gronkowski easier to endure.

But in the longer lens of history, the end of era-defining dynasties are always a more telling part of the story than the beginning. At the end, we see the depth of the stress fractures. The seams come apart. And finally, we begin to understand precisely when the curtain began to fall.

Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski took their talents to Tampa. (Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)
Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski took their talents to Tampa. (Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)

Inside that decisive context, a centerpiece almost always emerges. A chief culprit who began pulling strings and unraveling it all. These stories define NFL dynasties. Go ask Dallas Cowboys fans about their 1990s run, and they will tell you about the ego and impetuousness of Jerry Jones. The decade before it, the latter stages of a San Francisco 49ers run was ultimately defined by a rift that pitted Joe Montana against Steve Young.

In time, the story of a dynastic breakup finds a singular spotlight. The person standing inside it often becomes the defining culprit in a definitive ending. No matter what happens next, we’ve seen enough to know who that person is in New England. Brady is gone. Gronkowski has followed.

Belichick is the last man standing in New England. And when we look back, the beginning and ending of this story will have always run directly through him.


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