Why would the league's best tight end retire at the peak of his powers?
This season has proven that prospect to be much more realistic than previously imagined, largely because, well, Gronk doesn't look much like Gronk anymore. His recurring injuries -- chiefly, his back -- seem to have taken a toll on how he can perform physically, and as a result, he's not a big part of New England's game plan.
Grownkowski has played 750 downs with the Patriots this season, but is touching the ball less than four times per game. He received a season-low three targets in Sunday's win over the Buffalo Bills -- and none came in the red zone. All of this, of course, was after Gronkowski caught two passes (on five targets) for 21 yards in a loss to the Steelers, and was targeted late when the Patriots needed a touchdown but wasn't much of a threat on such attempts.
The writing isn't quite on the wall, but there might be a few letters written in crayon up there. Gronkowski isn't talking about it much, though.
"I haven't been thinking about that at all," Gronkowski said Thursday. "We're on the last game. Going into Week 17, we've got the Jets. That's all I'm really worried about as of now."
For comparison, Gronkowski was targeted 105 times last season (in 14 games), and caught 69 passes for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns. He's at 70 targets, 45 receptions, 658 yards and three touchdowns this year in 12 games.
The statistical dropoff isn't huge, but when watching him on the field, he just doesn't look the same. He isn't acknowledging it, though.
"I would say every season presents a different challenge," Gronkowski said. "You go through things, you get dinged up a little bit. It's a different challenge. ... Every season brings it's own little challenges. You've just gotta keep on grinding, keep on staying positive. Stay focused. That's all you got to really do. You can't ever get too down and then you dig yourself a bigger hole.
"I love the grind. I'm all in. I've been all in all season."