ATLANTA — Moments after Rob Gronkowski settled into his podium chair for his fourth media session of Super Bowl week, he was asked, for the umpteenth time, about his future plans.
Will Super Bowl LIII be his final game in an NFL uniform? Or does he intend to be back for a 10th season with the New England Patriots in 2019?
That’s been the biggest question throughout the largely drama-free lead-up to Sunday’s matchup between the Patriots and NFC champion Los Angeles Rams. And Gronkowski hasn’t seemed to mind.
“Today’s a maybe,” the tight end replied, a massive, toothy grin covering his face, before proceeding to cackle with glee for five full seconds. The throng of reporters stationed around his riser laughed with him. It was hard not to.
Gronkowski was the star of Super Bowl week, exuding a radiant positivity that had been absent from his public persona for much of the regular season.
Remember, this is the same Gronk who acknowledged during training camp that football really isn’t fun when your body is banged up, then proceeded to slog through a season during which he dealt with multiple nagging injuries and saw his productivity drop considerably from where it was in his 2017 All-Pro campaign.
Normally upbeat and bubbly in his dealings with the media, Gronkowski’s enthusiasm waned as his weekly news conferences became increasingly filled with questions about his subpar stats, including a six-game touchdown drought that began in mid-September and didn’t break until after Thanksgiving.
In the midst of that slump, Gronkowski admitted this season had been “more challenging” for him. Even watching his diminished play on film was becoming difficult, he said.
Later, after enduring his worst performance of 2018 in an otherwise impressive early-December win over the Minnesota Vikings, Gronkowski shouldered the blame for his struggles, lamenting the fact he was not living up to his potential.
“I feel like obviously I can be more effective, for sure,” he said at the time. “… I can grow in the pass game definitely. Grow in the run game even more at times. Whatever it is, I’ve just got to go out there and play my best football.”
Gronkowski’s best football almost certainly is behind him. But ever since this postseason began, he’s at least approximated it.
Against the Los Angeles Chargers in the divisional round, he run-blocked like a human bulldozer, bullying defenders for four quarters. He caught just one pass, but it was a vintage Gronk production — a 25-yard romp that required multiple Chargers to bring him down. He also drew a pass interference penalty in the end zone for good measure.
In the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots unleashed Gronkowski in the passing game. Quarterback Tom Brady targeted him 11 times in their dramatic victory over the Kansas City Chiefs — his highest total since Super Bowl LII — and he caught six passes for 79 yards, including a massive third-down conversion in the final minute of regulation and a key third-and-10 conversion on the opening drive of overtime.
Since that game, the 29-year-old rarely has been seen without a smile on his face. He’s fully healthy, finally producing and about to play in his fourth Super Bowl. If this is the end for the greatest tight end in history, he’s relishing every second.
Will Gronkowski replicate his recent success on Sunday? That looks like a real possibility.
The Rams allowed the third-most receiving yards to tight ends during the regular season, and they had serious trouble defending some of the better players in the league at that position.
Oakland’s Jared Cook went off for nine catches for 180 yards in Week 1. Kansas City’s Travis Kelce caught 10 passes for 127 yards and a touchdown in that wild 54-51 affair in Week 11. San Francisco’s George Kittle — who broke Gronkowski’s single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end — torched LA twice, catching five passes for 98 yards and a touchdown in Week 7 and nine for 149 and another score in Week 17.
Gronkowski might not be as nimble or powerful as he was at the height of his powers, but he’s still a threat opponents must take seriously. Don’t be surprised if he goes out with a flourish.
Thumbnail photo via Mark Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images