FOXBOROUGH — It's a new year, and a new injury to rehab, but it's the same Rob Gronkowski.
Since entering the NFL in 2010, Gronkowski has made a name for himself by imposing his 6-foot-6, 265-pound will on opposing defenders. And that's not going to change, even if Patriots fans hold their collective breath every time he makes contact with a defender.
"I ain't changing that one bit," Gronkowski said of his playing style. "I'm gonna go full-speed when I'm out there, and I'm gonna keep smashing and dashing everything I do. Maybe, if it's not necessary one single bit, I'll go down, but if I can make some plays, make some extra yards, [and] get in the end zone, I'm definitely gonna go full-speed and I'm gonna take the hits and I'm gonna do everything I can."
Gronkowski admits that he's not yet back to 100 percent — he has not yet participated in team drills and does not have a timetable as to when he will be ready to participate in full capacity. He has done all of his route-running and pass-catching against air, but he does appear comfortable planting and cutting in both directions.
"When I start rolling and getting contact, I'm pretty sure I won't have any fear at that moment because that's what we're working here for: to get myself ready, to get my knee right, getting everything strengthened around it, so when I do hit the field, when I do start hitting, when I do start getting tackled, I'm out there ready to go and I'm not thinking about it in the back of my head. It's a slow progression, just working every single week to get to that point."
Just looking at Gronkowski, it may seem impossible to imagine not having those thoughts in the back of his head. With a heavily bandaged left arm and right leg, Gronkowski has a bionic look to him on the field.
Wearing those braces is a process like any other, and it gets more comfortable with time.
"I'm used to the arm brace now, it's been a year now wearing that, so it's second [nature] wearing that thing around," Gronkowski said. "The knee brace just started but today's the second day out there and I'm already getting comfortable with everything, so it's feeling good out there, running routes, getting balls thrown, and it just feels great to be out there with my teammates again, being in the huddle, catching balls from Tom Brady. It's like a dream come true."
Brady may agree that having Gronkowski out there is a dream come true, as well. In seven games with Gronkowski, Brady completed 64.1 percent of his throws with 13 touchdowns, five interceptions and a passer rating of 95.8. Without Gronkowski, Brady completed 57.6 percent of his throws with 12 touchdowns, six picks and an 80.3 passer rating.
As a whole, the Patriots offense was noticeably less effective without Gronkowski; they scored 14 touchdowns on 32 red zone possessions (43.8 percent) in their nine games without Gronkowski, and 22 touchdowns on 32 red zone possessions (68.8 percent) in their seven games with Gronkowski in the lineup.
Even still, Gronkowski shrugs off his importance to the offense with the same ease that he shrugs defenders off while running to the end zone.
"It's a team game," Gronkowski said. "We all rely on each other to the max. If one person's not doing their job, then the whole team's not doing their job. We're all a big part of the offense, every single player that's out there at the same time."