For Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, there is only football.
Sure, there’s that other stuff on the side, too. When it comes to Gronk, we occasionally like to think the nightlife is the life. It’s impossible not to think of “Yo soy fiesta,” body-slamming in Vegas, dancing shirtless, “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?” and dating show appearances, book-writing, and an “Entourage” cameo, among his countless off the field, headline-making moments.
But, really, it all comes back to football. That’s where Gronkowski’s money is made, it’s where he has the most fun, and it’s what he cares most about.
Despite back, forearm, and knee injuries requiring at least eight surgeries in recent years, the physical Pats pass-catcher and run-blocker is as tough as they come. Chalk his absences up to bad luck or circumstance, but there’s no denying he’s had a difficult go in the last two-plus seasons.
Now, we’re just weeks away from New England starting its quest for a fourth Super Bowl championship in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era in Miami on Sept. 7. To achieve that goal, the pair will need – among other things – a healthy Gronkowski for an entire postseason for the first time since he was a rookie in 2010. Getting that far without him in an unimpressive AFC East wouldn’t be an issue.
We’ve debated in the past how important it is for Gronkowski to be ready for Week 1. You may remember; it was a popular discussion at this time a year ago when the tight end was working his way back from forearm and back woes. As it turned out, he avoided the PUP list, his inner-circle motivated him to take a couple of extra weeks to return, he eventually made it back for Week 7, and his season was still over before the Pats played their 14th game on account of a devastating blow to the leg by new Denver defender T.J. Ward.
In other words, shelving Gronkowski for a few weeks may minimize his long-term injury risks in the scope of the season but, like something out of the “Final Destination” movies, someone with a problem avoiding the IR can only hide for so long.
After appearing in just 18 regular season games over his last 32 following two full 16-game campaigns, some have suggested Gronkowski is simply due for a healthy year. Here’s hoping it works that way.
The All-Pro has been limited to non-contact, individual work early in training camp and he’s fully admitted he’s not yet feeling 100 percent. How could he be? Gronkowski may be a freak of nature, but he’s still human. He tore his ACL and MCL in his right knee on Dec. 8. Even if he returns in Week 1, he likely won’t be the Gronkowski of old all season.
Adrian Peterson is the exception, not the rule. Like Gronkowski, he suffered ACL and MCL tears in December, but of 2012. After James Andrews’ procedure, the elite runner was back for the start of Minnesota's season and delivered an MVP performance, bolstered by 2,097 yards on the ground – just eight shy of Eric Dickerson’s 1984 record – and 12 touchdowns in a full 16-game slate.
Closer to home, Wes Welker’s season came to a halt in Week 17 of 2009 when Bernard Pollard’s hit resulted in a torn ACL and MCL. In 2010, the slot receiver managed to be ready for the opener and appeared in 15 games, but his 2009 totals dropped considerably from 123 catches and 1,348 yards to a still productive but less spectacular 848 yards on 86 receptions. Welker enjoyed a career-year with 122 grabs for 1,569 yards in 2011.
More recently, new Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis had his 2012 season – his last with the Jets – cut short after two games by an ACL tear. He suited up for all 16 games for his new club in Tampa in 2013, but had fewer interceptions (2), pass deflections (11), and tackles (50) than in any of his previous full seasons. Only now, a full calendar season removed from the injury, is the All-World defender saying he’s feeling like his old self.
“They say it takes a year and a half or two,” Revis told reporters Friday. “I think I’m at a point now where I’m there. This offseason was a full offseason for me where I could just focus on working out instead of doing rehab as soon as you get the injury. I’m fine. I’m in the best shape of my career, and I’m looking forward to the season.”
Good news for the Patriots.
Gronkowski can tell us all he wants that he’s going to “go full speed out there” and “keep smashin’ and dashin’” in everything he does, but his knee will have the final say, not his head or his will.
In only 50 regular season games, Gronkowski has caught 42 touchdowns. In five playoff contests, he’s added three more.
It’s easy to look at the numbers and just believe, magically, he’ll be the same guy that came back from injuries last year and elevated an anemic offense for six-plus games. For a brief time, New England once again possessed one of the best offenses in football, and that was largely because of the impact of Gronkowski.
On the heels of a knee injury, there are no guarantees. It’s impossible to take for granted he will be able to move with the same force, push, precision, and strength as he once did, and that may remain the case for much of the season or into 2015.
Heaven forbid Gronkowski gets hurt again, the team will have to rely on the health and production of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Stevan Ridley, and Shane Vereen. Whether in the case of injury or inconsistency histories, not one of those aforementioned players is free of question marks.
What about the depth at tight end? Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio addressed that topic with the media on Sunday.
“We’ve had a lot of players – Hooman [Michael Hoomanawanui] played a lot of snaps for us last year. Rob, when he’s on the field he’s given us a lot of good production,” Caserio said. “We have a number of young guys that we’re working with. Look, we’re all in the same boat. Everybody is going out there to try to improve at their position. The guys we’ve brought in here, we brought them in here because we felt that they had something that was appealing and they had a particular skill and we’ll keep working with them and we’ll see how it goes.”
If not Gronkowski, the top options at the moment are D.J. Williams and Hoomanawanui. In their careers, spanning a total of seven years, they've combined for 46 catches, 574 yards, and four touchdowns. In seven games in 2013, Gronkowski caught 39 balls for 592 yards and four scores.
We can all agree Gronkowski needs to get healthy as soon as possible.
So what are fair expectations for the recovering tight end this season?
Let’s just give him the benefit of the doubt for his insane abilities and work ethic and say the Pats should receive about 85 percent of a healthy Gronkowski. That would equate to roughly 61 catches, 885 yards, and 11 touchdowns over about 14 games, totals that would still rank him among the best in the game at his position.
Those are far cries from a breakout 2011 campaign in which Gronkowski caught 90 balls for 1,327 yards and an NFL-best 17 scores in 16 starts, but we’d take them without thinking twice. Given the tight end’s recent history, Belichick and Brady probably would as well.
Gronkowski doesn’t have to be at the top of his game in 2014. As long as he’s playing the game, that’s a big step in the right direction.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
More from this blog on: Patriots