The player with the most seismic celebration in the NFL could use a spike in production to reach the incentives in his contract. It has been awhile since we’ve seen Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski deliver one of his patented Richter scale-registering touchdown celebrations. Gronk hasn’t visited the end zone since Week 1, and it has not gone unnoticed.
Gronk not being in the end zone is like a Jenner/Kardashian not popping up on TMZ. It just feels wrong. Gronk was right when he said Wednesday that the end zone misses him.
Gronkowski was not thrilled with a line of questioning about his dip in production in the lead-up to Sunday’s prime-time matchup with the Green Bay Packers. On Wednesday, the big guy tried to disguise his annoyance with inquiries related to the decline in his numbers — he has 29 catches for 448 yards and that lonely TD — with a wan smile. But his body language and Belichickian brevity told the tale in an abbreviated news conference.
What’s up with Gronk is a fair question. It’s one that’s not going away because it’s impossible not to view his play through the lens of his contract, which had performance incentives added to it for the second consecutive season. It creates a compelling soap opera — As the Tight End Earns.
The Patriots put him in this position with a contract that while beneficial and savvy from a salary cap management standpoint is at odds with their organizational ethos. The underpinning of the Patriots’ dynasty is the steadfast suppression of individual goals in favor of single-minded sacrifice for the good of the team. That’s the paradox of Gronk’s situation. He is on a team that preaches subjugating individual success, but he’s on a contract that rewards him based on it.
One of the most indefensible players in the NFL can’t really defend himself when he’s asked about his production or lack thereof. (He is averaging 64 receiving yards per game, the fewest since his rookie season.) If he complains about his usage or his opportunities in the midst of a five-game winning streak he’s deviating from the program. If he doesn’t provide an explanation then it fuels the narrative that the responsibility for his decline in production is the result of his physical decline.
All the Tide Pods in the world couldn’t get Gronkowski to come clean about how he really feels about his current situation. Gronkowski was asked if he was frustrated. “No, I mean we’re 6-2. We just won five games in a row, and we’re just trying to get the W every week,” he said.
When Gronk is not getting his catches or his cash it’s notable, especially if it coincides with him being on the injury report with ankle and back ailments that caused him to miss the Chicago game on Oct. 21. Back in June at mandatory minicamp, Gronkowski remarked that “the game of football is fun when you’re feeling good, and if you’re not feeling good you really don’t like the game of football.”
Last year, Gronkowski maxed out his incentives, including one for earning All-Pro honors, to collect an additional $5.5 million. This year, he’s having a tougher time padding his pay. The Patriots added $4.3 million of incentives to his deal for 2018, allowing him to earn a maximum of $13.05 million. He enters the Packers game on Sunday not on target to reach most of those incentives.
Gronkowski can earn $1.1 million each for recording 80 percent of the offensive snaps (he’s currently at 80.25 percent), 70 catches, 1,085 receiving yards, and nine touchdowns. However, those incentives are capped at $3.3 million as he can only get credit for three of the four thresholds. In addition, New England’s nonpareil tight end had $1 million added to his per-game roster bonuses, bumping it to a total of $1.75 million, or $109,375 for each game he’s active. Gronk missed out on one of those checks when he missed the Bears game.
Halfway through the season, Gronk needs a strong second half to hit his incentives.
The good news is that other than the touchdowns he’s not really that far off from his first-half numbers of last season. In 2017, Gronkowski had 69 catches for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns; through the first half of that season Gronk collected 34 receptions for 509 yards and five touchdowns in seven games.
While Gronk is catching grief for his performance in the red zone, he’s not catching much else. He has been targeted just two times in the red zone this season and has zero catches. That’s shocking for someone who has made a living overpowering and overwhelming defenders. Last season, Gronkowski was targeted 22 times in the red zone, sixth most in the NFL, and had 11 catches for 94 yards and six touchdowns.
What does the guy throwing him the ball think about a diminished connection with Gronkowski? Patriots quarterback Tom Brady deftly sidestepped the question like he does an oncoming pass rusher on Friday.
“I don’t know. I don’t think we’ve played our best offensively over the last eight games,” said Brady, who has his own incentives to worry about. “So I’d say we’ve got to all figure out — whether it’s me and Rob, or me and Josh [Gordon], or me and Jules [Julian Edelman] or everyone, I think we’re just trying to work at it every week. But we’re 6-2. I think we realize our best football is ahead of us if we work hard at it, and that’s what our goal is.”
The backdrop to Gronk’s decreased production is that the team attempted to trade him during the offseason. A deal with Detroit fell through when Gronkowski threatened to retire if dealt, in part because of his fealty to Brady. Gronkowski then repledged his commitment to the Patriots. He took Tom’s side in the Brady-Bill Belichick cold war tension, skipping organized team activities along with Brady.
Gronkowski campaigning for more pay has become a yearly occurrence in Fort Foxborough as he plays out the six-year, $54 million contract he signed in 2012.
There are obvious salary cap accounting reasons for why Gronk’s incentives are constructed the way they are. Pegging them as not likely to be earned incentives (NLTBEs) gives the Patriots more room to maneuver. It’s difficult to tie Gronk’s contract to team goals because any team goal like winning 12-plus games or finishing top two in the NFL in total offense or passing offense would be classified as likely to be earned and hit the cap immediately because the Patriots hit those marks last season.
Still, the approach seems a bit contradictory — we’re all about team success until it’s time to pay you. Belichick was asked about his all-world tight end’s slow start and his incentives on Oct. 19. His response was what you would expect from the coach who coined the term stats are for losers.
“I’m just telling you like our goal is not to go out there and create stats for an individual player,” said Belichick. “We just don’t think that way. We try to go out and win the game, so whatever we need to do to win the game, then that’s what our goal is. Our goal is not to create individual stats. That’s just not how we do it.”
No, it’s not. But it is how they’ve decided to reward Gronkowski, and it means now he’s being targeted in a way he would rather not to be.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.