FOXBORO -- With six games under his belt, it looks like Rob Gronkowski is back to form. The Patriots tight end missed all of the team's offseason workouts as well as the regular season's first six weeks while rehabbing from multiple forearm surgeries and a back procedure. He didn't score a touchdown in either of his first two games back, but has scored in New England's last four contests. With 37 catches for 560 yards he appears comfortable, tough, and a reliable target.
One thing Bill Belichick won't say about Gronkowski is that he's all caught up.
"Rob's preseason was the time prior to when he played, those practice weeks -- however many it was from the start of the season -- when we were asked about every day what his status was, whether he was practicing, when he was playing, what he was doing and all that," the coach remarked snidely. "That was his training camp, that's all it was. But that isn't training camp."
Belichick noted it's more reasonable to say Gronkowski is conditioned for the beginning of the regular season. That doesn't sound like such a bad thing until you consider his teammates are chugging along at Week 14.
"You can't replace the time that you've missed," Belichick said. "You can't replace it. It's gone."
It's an oversimplification to say a player only misses reps. Gronkowski is already well-versed in being an NFL tight end; what he didn't get this summer is time with his teammates to perfect timing, execution, consistency, and fundamentals.
"When you're out here trying to get ready for a team like Cleveland, who has a bunch of different defenses, a bunch of different offensive sets, a bunch of different plays, a bunch of different things in the kicking game, it's hard to take the same time and dedicate it to fundamental techniques as you do when you're in training camp and you're installing your plays with your fundamentals that you're going to use on those plays, and you can go out there and practice them and go out the next day and correct it, practice them again and run that play," Belichick explained.
"We're not in that mode now. We're just not. We can do a part of it in a few drills, or maybe something after practice, but it's nowhere close to where training camp. It's impossible. If you did that I don't think you could prepare your team for the different things they'd have to deal with in the game."
There's just not enough time in preparing for opponents to rehash fundamentals. Those weeks in July, August and September are used to build a base of techniques the players can look back on and reference throughout the rest of the year.
Gronkowski is a remarkable athlete and, barring injury, his production should stay high in the coming weeks. But is he on the same page as his teammates? No Patriot who has missed significant time can be, according to Belichick.
"That's the battle you fight," he admitted. "When you get ready for a game now it's a lot different than getting ready for a game in Week 3 or Week 4 because you have 12 weeks of the volume of what they do. They've been in two-minute situations, and goal line, and short yardage, and third-down, and all that, and they've expanded their packages just like you've expanded yours. Now, multiples become exponential in terms of what you can do, what they can do, what they've shown, what you've got to cover.
"I'm just saying it takes a lot of time."