There’s no mystery as to why the Patriots want two-time Pro Bowler Rob Gronkowski back on the field as soon as possible.
New England’s offense ranks tied for 25th in the NFL in points per game at an even 18, and sits 22nd with 331.5 yards a contest. That’s a far cry from last season, when the Pats dominated the rest of the league in both categories with nearly 35 points and 428 yards on average.
The tight end position has been effectively undetectable in 2013 as Michael Hoomanawanui and rookie Zach Sudfeld (who missed last Thursday’s tilt with the Jets with a pulled hamstring) have combined for five yards on one catch and four targets. At that position, the club is basically the worst in the league to date.
Those who have played, Julian Edelman aside, have either struggled or gotten hurt. Shane Vereen is out until at least Week 11 because of a broken wrist, and doctors can’t even agree on what Danny Amendola’s problem is, let alone how effective he’ll be whenever he returns. Then there’s Tom Brady, who’s displayed enough in-game rage through two games to make us wonder if his struggling rookie pass-catchers are actually college walk-ons masquerading as professional football players.
And, all the while, the Pats are 2-0. Somehow, it hasn’t been all bad.
There’s no doubt that the club needs help, but Gronkowski isn’t the answer. Not yet.
ESPN.com reported on Tuesday that there’s a 50-50 chance Gronkowski will make his season-debut when the Patriots host the hapless Buccaneers on Sunday. ProFootballTalk.com countered with the notion that the hulking tight end is doubtful to play. As the latter notes, this ongoing speculation over when he’d finally be ready to return was invited the moment coach Bill Belichick and his staff opted not to place Gronk on the physically unable to perform list to start the year.
Four surgeries on that forearm and one on the back rendered Gronkowski invisible during training camp. While his teammates were out in the sun practicing or playing games under the lights, he was hidden away on the PUP list working with strength and conditioning coaches to build up a once superhuman-looking body that had clearly shed more than a couple pounds of muscle from a lack of activity. Even with a few brief weeks of practices under his belt after missing every moment of camp, it’s almost impossible to believe he’s found his way back to full strength.
Back injuries, especially lower-back injuries, affect the entire body as it pertains to training, weight lifting, cardio activities, everything short of shopping on the Internet. The most productive things Gronkowski did this summer were write a book and dodge a few questions about Aaron Hernandez.
It’s fair to wonder: if he’s not at the same 265-pound weight, can Gronk still throw the same blocks in the run game? More importantly, can he take the same hits in the passing game, especially as the primary red zone target?
Sure, even 75 percent of the Gronkowski we’re all used to seeing could be a significant boost to Brady’s offense, and certainly the quarterback’s psyche, but it also elevates the chance of a subsequent setback.
It would be a mistake for the Patriots to look at a pair of ugly wins, a lack of production inside the 20, a slew of struggling rookies, and general inconsistencies and ineffectiveness on offense, and decide that the risk of returning Gronk to the line of scrimmage is worth the gamble. It’s not. They can get by without him now; they'll need him later, when injuries have forced them to miss him most the last two seasons. One or two more weeks, whatever it takes, of rehabbing his body and getting it into game-shape is far more important if his physical strength indeed remains even the smallest issue.
We’ll all have a better idea of what the Patriots are thinking this afternoon when they release their injury report. If Gronkowski is listed as doubtful, don’t expect to see him. If he’s questionable or probable, then there really is a chance he’ll play, and that would seem to be the wrong move.
Of course, misdirection – even superstition – happens, much the way Brady was probable all those years because of his shoulder, though there was never a question whether he’d play.
The difference is if Gronk actually belongs on the report. If he does, however slim the percentage that warrants it, that’s enough to keep him off the field. Anything less than 100 percent shouldn't even be considered. Hastily reacting to the shortcomings in two wins may otherwise result in one big loss.
Again, the Pats are undefeated.
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Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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