During Super Bowl 52, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was unstoppable. He caught nine passes against the Philadelphia Eagles for 116 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but his valiant effort was ultimately not enough to earn him a third championship ring. After the contest, Gronkowski almost immediately jumped into the headlines — but not for his outstanding performance against the Eagles.
During the postgame press conference, the NFL’s best tight end raised questions about his future that were not answered until late April when he announced his intentions to return to the team. Since then, Gronkowski received a reworked contract and appeared in 12 of New England’s 15 regular season games. But while he is back on the field for the Patriots, his long-term outlook is again the subject of speculation.
The reason for that is a mixture of Gronkowski’s injuries — he has again missed time with injury and is dealing with back and ankle issues — and production: so far this year, he has caught 45 passes for 658 yards and three touchdowns. While the numbers are solid albeit unspectacular they fall short of a) his the incentive goals in his contract, and b) the level of expectations Gronk created over the first eight seasons of his career.
“I would say every season presents a different challenge,” the 29-year old said during a press conference yesterday when asked about the difficulties his 2018 season in particular presents. “You go through things, you get dinged up a little bit, it’s a different challenge coming back from something, coming back from something different. Every season brings its own little challenges and you’ve just got to keep on grinding.”
“You’ve got to keep on staying positive and you’ve got to just stay focused,” Gronkowski added, pointing out how he approaches challenging stretches like the one he currently appears to be in. “That’s all you’ve got to really do. You can’t ever get too down. Then you just dig yourself a bigger hole; that’s all. [...] You’ve got to enjoy your time and no matter how games go, up or down, you’ve just got to keep focused and keep it going.”
This season, Gronkowski’s focus needs to be on a role that differs a bit from years past: no longer is he the consistent number one threat teams need to pay extra attention to in the passing game. While he is certainly capable of still hurting teams — just ask the Miami Dolphins — he has not done that seemingly every week like in the past. Instead, the Patriots often use him as a decoy or as a blocker in the running game (a role he excels in).
Does this change and the lack of targets in the passing game it brought with it frustrate Gronkowski? According to the man himself that is not the case. “No, not at all,” Gronkowski told reporters on Thursday. “I know how this game works. I’ve been here for a while and it’s a team game. I mean, if we run the ball 50 times, we run the ball 50 times. We’ve got to get that win. If we pass the ball 50 times then we pass the ball 50 times.”
“It’s all about the win, it’s all about doing what you need to do to help out the team. If it’s blocking, if it’s catching 10 balls that game, if it’s catching one ball that game, if it’s blocking the whole game — no matter what it is, I’m going to go full speed and whatever the coaches ask me to do I’m going to do it to the best of my ability,” the future Hall of Famer continued. “I feel like that’s how it is with everyone around here, which is great.”
Whether Gronkowski will still be part of “everyone around here” next season is a different question, and one he is not publicly answering at the moment. “I haven’t been thinking about that at all. We’re on the last game going into Week 17. We’ve got the Jets and that’s all I’m really worried about as of now,” he said. But when asked whether he still enjoys playing the game, Gronkowski’s answer was clear.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said before adding what he feels the best part of football is at this point in his career. “Being with the guys. I would say that’s a lot of player’s benefits, is just having a locker room, being around the guys, having good times, being out in practice, cracking some jokes, making plays. Just having that team bond, being with every one, is always something special.”