The Rob Gronkowski trade to the Buccaneers makes you reconsider The Patriot Way

At 3:58 ET on Tuesday afternoon, I checked Twitter and saw that one of my followers had tweeted, “Can someone check on @thewilderthings?” I panicked, because it meant that something terrible had happened to Guy Fieri, Laura Dern, or a New England sports team.

You all know which one it was (thank god that Guy and Laura are okay). I clicked over to my main timeline and saw a tweet from Jay Glazer proclaiming the very real possibility that Rob Gronkoswki, the retired New England tight end and Tom Brady’s favorite target for eight years, was coming out of retirement to play with Brady in Tampa Bay.

No, I thought to myself. This isn’t happening. Gronk is happily hosting beach parties and WrestleMania. He just won the WWE 24/7 Championship a few weeks ago! He’d put his body through so much. It was time to hang up the cleats, and he was smart to do it after winning his third Super Bowl. Why would he retire from New England only to go to Tampa a year later?

I replied to a few frantic texts from my Pats-fan friends and then refreshed Twitter to discover that this wasn’t some nightmare within a nightmare. Gronk is really going to the Bucs, and the Patriots have Tampa Bay’s fourth-round pick in return. I feel like a boyfriend broke up with me and then convinced my best friend, who moved away last year, to go work with him at his new job. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say I feel betrayed, but it is definitely a hurt sadness.

Look, Brady and Gronk gave New England fans far more than any of us ever deserved (don’t @ me, Pats fans, you know this is true). The Patriots had already won three Super Bowls in four years by the time Gronk was drafted. He was yet another weapon in coach Bill Belichick’s arsenal, a dart board that Brady continually hit with bullseyes. Watching the two of them play together brought such joy. Not only did they have incredible chemistry on the field, they seemed to be having fun.

Fun has been in short supply in New England’s operations for the past 20 years. The Patriot Way means that players keep their heads down and Do Their Jobs. I wrote this last week, but individuality under Dark Football Lord Belichick is a luxury, not a right. He’s so good at what he does because he separates emotion from it — players are puzzle pieces to be slotted in where they are most useful. When they no longer fit, they’re traded away or left to make their own decisions about their worth. But no one gets special treatment. Not even Six-Rings Brady, who toed the line until he apparently couldn’t take it anymore and decided to go get paid and play for Bruce Arians, a coach known for fostering a fun environment.

Gronk was the loudest Patriots personality of the past two decades. It’s almost incredible how well he was able to build his own brand under the roof of Gillette Stadium. He appeared in GQ seemingly naked, with a towel bearing the print of a hundred-dollar bill draped across his waist. In the article, he said this:

“I don’t drink because I like the taste,” Gronk said. “Beer is nasty. I would never sit there and have a beer with dinner—it would ruin my whole meal. I drink to have fun, to feel good, to get tipsy. But my drink of choice is vodka and water.”

I remember that quote because I remember being somewhat stunned when I read it. Did the Patriots agree to let Gronk do this profile? Did Gronk go rogue and do it anyway? What did Belichick think when he read it (he probably didn’t read it)?

In his year out of the league, Gronk put on a masterclass in leveraging a personal brand. It was hatched in New England, but it fully took flight once he left: He appeared on this very network and got better on TV. His personality was on full display when I went to Gronk Beach, a techno party the former tight end held during a torrential downpour the day before the Super Bowl in Miami (remember when we were allowed to leave the house and sports existed?). I was impressed by Gronk’s command of the stage, by his endorsement deals, by how many people showed up to dance with him in a monsoon. He was generous with his fans — he stayed out there fist-pumping for seven hours! When I finally left, drenched and exhausted, he was still dancing, his massive form silhouetted against the green light and dry ice pouring from the stage.

I wrote, after that party, that Gronk didn’t need football nearly as much as football needed Gronk. Brady struggled last season without his favorite target there to spike the ball in the end zone. There was no last-second magic we’re used to seeing from the Patriots — the Titans beat them on an interception in the wild card game. The last pass Brady ever threw at Foxboro was a pick six.

What I didn’t stop to consider, however, was that maybe Gronk wanted football. Maybe he wanted the kind of football he wanted to play, in an environment closer to a massive dance party than all-boys New England prep school. Florida, after all, couldn’t be more perfectly suited to this guy’s image. As one of my Twitter followers said today when I was melting down online thinking about the quarterback and tight end wearing anything other than a Pats jersey, Gronk Beach was built for Tompa Bay.

I will never speak ill of Belichick — I think he’s a football genius to whom I owe twenty years of sports bliss. He clearly knows how to lead. But I can’t help but think that Gronk’s return makes the Patriot Way look a little…less ironclad. Let me be clear: I have not talked to Gronk. But it can say a lot about an environment when a once-in-a-generation player walks away from the game and from a quarterback he loved playing with, only to follow that quarterback to a different team a year later.

Brady hasn’t talked about Belichick publicly. He found a way to mention Gronk’s … manhood … during an interview with Howard Stern, but he had nothing to say about the coach. Seth Wickersham at ESPN, who’s covered Brady’s career since it began, wrote in March that Brady wants to be appreciated. That the star was tired of taking pay cuts and all of the falls for New England’s various -gates. It’s public that Brady wanted more of a say in a club’s operations, and that he’ll get that in Tampa.

I’m not saying that Belichick should’ve kept Brady. I was sad to see him leave, but I trust Belichick completely, from a football perspective. I’m truly fascinated to see how Belichick develops the next franchise quarterback (she said, trying to psych herself up for Jared Stidham, but praying Tua Tagovailoa slides in the draft). And Gronk and his former coach seem to be on good terms — Belichick himself showed up to Gronk Beach. That appearance now makes me wonder if Belichick was trying to convince Gronk to come back to New England instead of taking his talents to Tampa, but I’m not going to speculate.

All I’m saying is that Gronk going to the Bucs as opposed to staying one more year in New England could be a hint that for players, the Patriot Way might have its limitations. Everyone, even NFL champions, wants to be loved.