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BEN VOLIN | ON FOOTBALL

‘No-fun Patriots’ seem to be lightening up, perhaps to appease their disgruntled stars

elise amendola/AP

Rob Gronkowski may have contract issues, but he seemed to enjoy himself at minicamp last week.

By Globe Staff 

Lane Johnson would be shocked to learn what the Patriots did this week as they wrapped up nine weeks of offseason workouts.

On Monday, Bill Belichick canceled practice and instead held a team bonding experience at Fenway Park. On Tuesday, the Patriots returned to practice, but Belichick turned it into an opportunity to teach his players about football history, using props including leather helmets, I’m told.

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Also Tuesday, Robert Kraft went out of his way to call the Rob Gronkowski trade rumors “hogwash.” Oh, and he casually announced that Belichick had canceled the final two practices of the spring, letting everyone out for summer vacation three days early.

Has Belichick made football — dare we say it — fun again?

The answer is that the barrage of “Patriots are all work and no fun” accusations this offseason were a bit overblown. Belichick has done this in previous years, whether it’s cancel one or two OTAs at the end of spring or bring his players to the movies or bowling, etc. He also takes seriously the history lessons he gives to his players each Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

But nothing happens by accident in Foxborough. And after a contentious spring between the organization and Tom Brady and Gronkowski, and continual accusations that the Patriots have a miserable working environment, the events of the last week sure seemed like Kraft and Belichick extending olive branches to their star players.

This isn’t to say there aren’t still major issues among all of the parties. Brady is still miffed enough at Belichick and/or the organization that he skipped the OTAs again this week after appearing at mandatory minicamp last week. While the Patriots held one last practice Tuesday, Brady reportedly was golfing with Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler in the Hamptons.

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And Gronkowski still wants a new contract. He skipped OTAs this week, as well.

But Belichick and Kraft definitely seem like they are trying to bridge the gap.

Belichick’s decision to cancel three of four OTA practices this week certainly helps Brady in the court of public opinion.

Brady has made it clear this spring that his off-field life takes priority over football right now, that OTAs aren’t important, and that he can still get ready for the season by training on his own.

What better way for Belichick to show support with Brady than to basically cancel the entire week of practice? Belichick is telling us that these non-padded, noncontact practices don’t mean much, and the real football doesn’t begin until training camp.

If the Belichick-Brady relationship were truly nasty, Belichick could have easily taken it out on Brady this spring. Instead, Belichick reminded us repeatedly that the workouts Brady skipped were “voluntary.” Belichick gave Brady his usual first-team reps during minicamp. Now he’s canceling practices.

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The relationship is still such that Brady skipped this week’s practices instead of sticking around to work with his receivers. But the coach does seem to be trying to mend the fence.

As for Gronkowski, what seemed like a contentious relationship earlier this spring has turned much more harmonious.

The Patriots don’t often comment publicly about trade rumors, but Kraft, speaking Tuesday at the Patriots Foundation’s Myra Kraft Community MVP Award banquet, went out of his way to shoot down the latest buzz about Gronkowski. A report emerged last Friday stating that Belichick wanted to trade Gronk to the 49ers or Titans, but Kraft nixed the deal after Brady threatened to retire.

“I’ll just tell you it’s a bunch of hogwash that I vetoed some trade,” Kraft said. “That was never in the works, it’s just completely made up. This bit about us trading Gronk to the 49ers or Tennessee, there’s no basis to it, and it gets a life of its own. I just want to go on the record at today’s event to make sure that you all understand that there’s no truth to that.”

Now, this doesn’t mean that the Patriots never broached the idea of trading Gronk before the draft, when Gronk was considering retirement and baiting the team with his press conference at a motocross event at Gillette Stadium. But Gronkowski reaffirmed his commitment to Belichick and the Patriots for 2018 two days before the draft (smartly). And while the sides may be haggling over an amended contract, Kraft made it clear that he’s on Gronk’s side.

In addition to shooting down the rumor, Kraft praised Gronkowski’s business acumen.

“I didn’t know he had the financial skills and analytics to be able to pick a horse that would come in No. 2 at the Belmont, and then the very graceful name ‘Gronkowski,’ ” Kraft said. “I didn’t think it goes together, but anything with Gronk goes together.”

Kraft also used an interesting “f-word” Tuesday when describing the upcoming season: fun.

“I’m excited about this team, and I think we’re going to have a lot of fun this year,” Kraft said, unprompted.

That word catches my attention whenever it is said in Foxborough this spring. Because several people this year — Cassius Marsh, Danny Amendola, Lane Johnson, even Nate Solder — have accused the Patriots of not having much fun.

Kraft wants everyone to know — but especially Gronkowski — that it’s OK to have some fun.

Gronk seemed to get that message last week at minicamp. He spent three days high-stepping down the field like Deion Sanders, talking trash to defenders and coaches, firing footballs into the stands, and generally whooping it up every time he made a big play.

“Just having fun out there with the ball in my hands running up and down the field,” Gronkowski said, using that word again. “I love playing the game of football. The game of football is fun when you’re feeling good.”

And hey, Belichick can have fun, too. What’s more fun than Fenway Park and practicing with leather helmets?

Again, this isn’t to say that big issues don’t still exist with the team’s principal players. But with the offseason now complete and training camp on deck, Belichick and Kraft are doing their best to thaw the ice and show support for their two star players.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin