It has been two months since Rob Gronkowski followed the New England Patriots' Super Bowl defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles by saying he would contemplate his football future this offseason, seemingly leaving open the possibility of retiring.
Now, with free agency basically finished league-wide and the NFL draft nearing, there still has been no official resolution to Gronkowski's playing status for the 2018 season, although most indications are that he's likely to play. The filling-in-the-blanks portion of the storyline has included increasing speculation that the Patriots could receive trade offers for Gronkowski and might be willing to entertain them.
It is, at first glance, next to unthinkable that the Patriots would consider trading Gronkowski, who remains a cornerstone of their offense and still is one of the league's most productive tight ends at age 28.
But to totally dismiss any notion that the Patriots would consider parting with Gronkowski is to ignore how coach Bill Belichick has done business throughout his time in New England. The Patriots have been the greatest NFL dynasty in the era of the salary cap and free agency in large part because Belichick has been the least sentimental roster architect in the sport. He makes the tough moves. He looks forward, not backward. He moves on well before it is, in his view, too late.
Belichick has, over the years, unflinchingly said abrupt goodbyes to players such as Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Randy Moss, Logan Mankins and Chandler Jones. He undoubtedly would not hesitate to part with Gronkowski if he thought it was the right thing to do and the proper time to do it had arrived.
Owner Robert Kraft has said Belichick will coach the Patriots as long as he wants to do so. Belichick does not afford the same job security to players.
The difficult thing would be determining Gronkowski's worth. He remains a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses when he's healthy and when he's right. He has been the Patriots' most indispensable player after quarterback Tom Brady. He was very good again last season, with 69 catches for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns in 14 games.
But his health and availability have been issues over the years. He hasn't played 16 games in a season since 2011. He has played fewer than 12 games in a season three times over the past six years.
No one questions Gronkowski's competitiveness. Not even remotely. But his carefree off-field demeanor comes in contrast to the usually grim, unwavering, around-the-clock ruthlessness displayed by Belichick and Brady. There has been speculation about frustrations on both sides of the relationship between Belichick and Gronkowski, adding to the melodrama engulfing the organization after last season's reports of internal strife involving Brady, Belichick and Kraft.
Kraft said last week at the annual league meeting that he'd met, as promised, with Belichick and Brady since the Super Bowl loss. Kraft continued to dismiss the talk of dysfunction, saying that disagreements are part of being in business and, really, part of life. Kraft also spoke admiringly last week of Gronkowski's approach.
"I saw him a few weeks ago come into the building after hours," Kraft said then. "But I should say one thing when it comes to Gronk: I've met a lot of people in my life. I've never met anyone like him. If the Good Lord lets us come back as someone — I've said it before — he's the most carefree, happy, up kind of guy."
Yet Kraft also made it clear last week, when asked about Belichick's benching of now-departed cornerback Malcolm Butler in the Super Bowl, that he remains supportive of whatever Belichick decides, given that Belichick's record of coaching success has earned him the benefit of the doubt many times over.
"With my fan hat on, you can come up with all kinds of reasons or things," Kraft said at the league meeting of the Butler benching. "But here's the deal: We in New England are privileged to, I believe, have the greatest coach in the history of coaching. … I have faith in Bill as a coach that I don't think there's anyone who has the football knowledge and expertise combined with understanding personnel, no one can merge those two worlds [better]. And he's done pretty well for us over the last 18 years. So, as a fan, I can question some of the moves. As someone who's privileged to be the owner of this team, I encourage him to keep going with his instincts and doing what he thinks is right."
It is difficult to imagine the Patriots without Gronkowski. But, then, it once was difficult to imagine the Patriots without Law or Milloy or Vrabel or Moss or some of the other players sent on their way by Belichick. It was difficult to imagine the Patriots playing the entire Super Bowl without Butler on the field for a single defensive snap.
It would be surprising if Belichick and the Patriots decide they're better off without Gronkowski than with him. It would be significant, for sure. But stunning? No one should put it in that category, if it happens, after taking Belichick's roster-crafting history into account.