NFL: Super Bowl LIII-New England Patriots vs Los Angeles Rams

Rob Gronkowski catches a pass during the Patriots’ win over the Rams in the 2019 Super Bowl.

IS HE REALLY GONE?

Rob Gronkowski took to Instagram Sunday to announce his retirement from the NFL.

But is he REALLY gone?

It wasn’t long ago that Patriots great Willie McGinest offered the possibility that Gronk could retire — and then UN-retire sometime during the coming season. Then, Monday, his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, even left the door open for a 2019 return — coming at some point during the season.

Gronk, who is headed for the Hall of Fame and may well be the GOAT when it comes to tight ends, has taken a beating over his nine-year NFL career. He has won three Super Bowl rings and, in these eyes, as you might have read previously, is the greatest player in the NFL when he’s on the field.

He took his time making his decision, leaving the Pats hanging in the free agent world. ESPN’s Mike Reiss wrote Sunday that free agent Jared Cook (68 catches for 896 yards and six touchdowns with Oakland last season) backed off considering New England because he didn’t know what was going on with Gronkowski. Cook agreed with the Saints, citing a “clearer path to a top role” with New Orleans (before Gronk retired).

The Patriots play hardball with their players. They played it with Gronk last year, even trading him to the Lions in a proposed deal he killed. Did he take his time announcing this decision to turn the tables on the team?

“I mean, could Gronk have retired before free agency to, you know, give the Patriots extra cap space and a chance to replace him?” tweeted Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal.

Perhaps he truly didn’t know. Maybe the big fella has just had it and it took time to come to that conclusion.

The guy has taken a beating. He would like to be able to walk 20 years from now. As he said after the Super Bowl, “Abusing your body isn’t what your brain wants.”

The future? Acting? Commercials? Wrestling (no way that helps him physically)?

Now, going forward without Gronk, the team has no tight end and is thin at the receiver spots, while also missing Gronkowski’s run blocking and his significant contribution to keeping Tom Brady upright. They have draft picks to move up in the draft for a tight end, but that would be a rookie tight end. Jordy Nelson could help at the receiver spot.

For now, the tributes will keep flowing in. But so will the speculation that we’ll believe Gronk is truly retired when he’s not there throughout 2019. It’s almost like it was with Rob Ninkovich, who never did return and was sorely missed that season.

But remember, Jason Witten quit the Cowboys, at age 35, spent a year in the broadcast booth and is now coming back.

Gronkowski is 29.

Great tweet from retired Providence Journal NFL writer Jim Donaldson, who said, “Howard Cosell called Russ Francis “All-World.” Bucko Kilroy called him “Kid Charisma.” #Gronk was better. Ben Coates was pretty darn good. #Gronk was better. I was fortunate to cover all 3 talented TE’s. #Gronk was the best. Truly a special player — a Hall of Famer”

And from NESN’s Zack Cox: “Rob Gronkowski’s final career stats: 522 catches, 7,861 yards, 79 touchdowns, five Pro Bowls, four first-team All-Pros, three Super Bowl rings. A surefire Hall of Famer.”

From Danny Amendola: “To the most genuine man I’ve ever met. I love your hugs. Spikes. Buses. And I’ll never forget our trips home. LFG bro.”

Added Daniels: “I know that’s (his thoughts on Gronk holding the team up) an unpopular opinion. I also don’t think it should take away from the fact that he’s the greatest tight end to ever play this game. Next stop, Canton.”

Finally on the Gronk matter, from ESPN’s Adam Schefter: “I cannot imagine Tom Brady is particularly pleased with the events of the offseason. How could he? ... I don’t know this, but I would assume he’s upset.”

Looking for answers

The Celtics carry a four-game losing streak to Cleveland tonight. Barring something crazy, they will be either the No. 4 or 5 seed in the first round of the playoffs and will play the Victor Oladipo-less-but-still-pesky Pacers in the first round.

The teams meet twice more in the regular season and the Pacers just keep grinding.

Sunday, they scored a 124-88 victory over the Nuggets, who won in Boston last week and were at the end of a four-game trip in Indiana.

Celtics players kept their dressing room closed for a lengthy stretch after Sunday night’s blowout loss to the Spurs. After their fourth-quarter meltdown at Charlotte the previous night, they played without Al Horford and Jayson Tatum and just didn’t show up for San Antonio. LaMarcus Aldridge killed them with 48 points and 13 rebounds.

“Until we finally get healthy I don’t want to overreact,” said Brad Stevens, who added “We’re getting exposed by good teams.”

They have allowed 121.6 points per game over the last seven games, going 2-5.

That’s NOT the way to get ready for the playoffs.

But let’s see what happens when and if they get healthy for the first round of the playoffs.

Asked about his meeting with the team after the game (before the players met on their own, Stevens said, “I listened. I talked. And you know, there’s frustration in there but we got beat by a good team and I don’t — ultimately, we don’t need to ride the emotional roller coaster; we need to get a lot better. We’ve given up 115 or more in a lot of games here recently, and our defense has to improve dramatically if we’re going to make a push to ultimately get what we want out of the next couple of months.”

Kyrie Irving seemed to be taking a shot at his coach after Saturday night’s dreadful finish, saying, “We should have probably trapped (Kemba Walker, who had 18 points in the fourth quarter) a little bit more like every other team does in the league. He torches us every time. It’s no surprise.”

But he also said, “Judge us when we have our full lineup. But obviously when we come out and play like this with a bunch of young guys down the stretch, figuring things out … things are bound to happen but there’s no excuses.”

Staying home

Mike Trout may have been sending a message to Mookie Betts Sunday — without even meaning to do so.

Talking at the press conference that officially announced his new 12-year contract, Trout said he was glad to get this taken care of with two years left before potential free agency.

“I think if I waited two years, it wouldn’t have felt right moving to another team, going straight to a winning team,” he said. “Teams go through ups and downs. I want to be a part of everything.”

Going to a winning team isn’t something Betts will have to think about in two years. He’s already ON a winning team. Now, the question is how do the Red Sox go about the business of keeping him in Boston.

Hanley is set

Barring a late trade, it appears old pal Hanley Ramirez is back in the major leagues with the Indians. A big game turned things around late in camp.

“If we stay put, I mean, Hanley’s on the team,” Terry Francona said. “If there’s another move on the outside made, it could affect Hanley and we told him that.”

The Indians are in Boston May 27-29, the series ending a day shy of the one-year anniversary of his Sox release.

Ramirez hit .278 (10-for-36) with a .316 on-base percentage, .528 slugging percentage, .844 OPS, two home runs (both in that one game), three doubles, eight RBIs and four runs in 12 spring training games.

Sandy Leon became the odd man out in the Red Sox catching situation and was reportedly placed on waivers Sunday.

Red Sox president Sam Kennedy says he hopes the Sox will get the All-Star game “in the next 3-5 years.”

Hey, college basketball’s greatest annual weekend came to an end late Sunday night. And when the smoke cleared, seeds 1-3 in all four regions were still standing.

Finally, this space usually runs on Friday, but this week we will go Thursday, saluting Opening Day for the Red Sox with a look at the Sox and the AL East.

Mike Shalin covers Boston pro sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His email address is shalinmike@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter @mscotshay.