Rob Gronkowski’s offseason was stressful enough for Patriots fans when the only worry was his broken forearm. The same one he’s had three surgeries on since Thanksgiving and for which he’ll have another surgery — this time, with help from the grim reaper himself, James Andrews — this afternoon at MGH.
On the bright side, first and foremost, it’s Gronk’s left arm, so the injury barely limits his ability to beat up the beat. Just as important, doctors appear hopeful that his infection has finally subsided and today’s forearm procedure will be his last. Recovery is set at 10-11 weeks, which would put Gronk on pace to rejoin the team in early August.
But unfortunately for everyone involved, the concern over Gronk’s health doesn’t stop there.
Nothing’s official quite yet, but numerous reports — both local and national — suggest that Gronkowski will need yet another surgery later this summer to repair a disc in his back. At the very least, he’ll have a date with spine specialist Dr. Robert Watkins at some point in the next few weeks. And either way, as you might expect, the news has set off an inferno of panic and doomsday speculation over the future of a guy that New England had hoped would be the future.
The positive spin is that the recovery time would line up with his forearm recovery (so he won’t miss any additional time), and that this new back problem is in fact new, and not a recurrence of the injury that forced Gronk to miss his entire 2009 college season and transformed a certified first-round talent into a second-round pick.
The most optimistic take suggests that this back surgery isn’t even all that crucial, that it’s something Gronkowski might have otherwise been able to play through, and the Pats saw the 10-week arm recovery as a way to stay ahead of the game and kill two birds with one stone. Think of Gronk like a Hollywood housewife going in for a nose job. Bill Belichick is her billionaire husband who pulls the doctor aside on the morning of the surgery: “Hey, while you’re in there, how about throwing in a breast lift? Those things are falling fast.”
But you’ll excuse Patriots Nation for not feeling all that optimistic. For one, short of complete decapitation, it’s hard to imagine a more debilitating injury for a player like Gronk than a nagging back. He may have the build of a Greek God and hands softer than Tom Brady’s cheeks after a relaxing day at the spa, but so much of his success is predicated on brute strength and a knack for not only absorbing contact, but also seeking it out. His stature and hands alone could make Gronkowski a red zone threat for as long as he has a pulse, but with Wes Welker now in Denver, and considering the extension the Pats handed Gronk last summer, they need more than that. They need 2011’s one-man wrecking crew; they need the kid who looked poised to re-write the record books and potentially go down as the best tight end to ever play the game to live out that potential. And as long as that potential remains in limbo, so does the future of this franchise, the twilight of Brady’s career and the state of an offense that’s ranked in the top three the last three seasons and in the top 10 every year since 2004.
Then again, there’s always a chance that the last few sentences are nothing but hyperbole. After all, in 2001, Jermaine Wiggins led Patriot tight ends with 14 catches for 133 yards. When the Pats went back-to-back, Daniel Graham led New England tight ends who put up a combined 68 catches and 11 touchdowns. While it’s crazy to scoff at the possibility of losing a weapon of Gronkowski’s caliber (and this is the worst case scenario), there’s a history of success in New England without a dominant tight end, and let’s not forget that this current squad still has Aaron Hernandez and Jake Ballard. And anyway, haven’t we all spent the last few regular seasons lamenting the days when Brady’s favorite receiver was the open receiver, and criticizing his reluctance to trust his entire arsenal in favor of locking in on a few choice targets? Well, one of those guys is now in Denver, and if his other binky is forced to the sidelines for any extended period of time (or isn’t as dominant as he once was), what other choice will Brady have?
Then there’s the fact that the running attack, with Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, is more dynamic than it’s been in years. And for all the annual commotion, the defense finished in the Top 10 in points allowed last year. They’ll have Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Alfonzo Dennard and Tavon Smith with a year under their belts. They’ll have a full season (as long as he stays healthy and out of trouble) with Aqib Talib stabilizing the secondary, another year of Vince Wilfork in the middle (now with Tommy Kelly — who’s 32, but hasn’t missed a game in five seasons — by his side), Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes behind him, and if all goes well a proven veteran leader, Adrian Wilson, on the back end. Wilson’s also up there in age but has made the Pro Bowl in four of the last five seasons.
And yeah, I just painted the rosiest possible scenario for the 2013 Patriots, but my point is that no matter what happens with Gronk, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at the big picture, as opposed to taking all the anger and disappointment associated with the way his career is trending and projecting it on the state of the entire franchise. There’s only one guy this team can’t afford to lose, and it’s not No. 87. It’s the guy throwing him the ball.
Still, as a Patriots fan, or just a football fan in general, it’s impossible to merely take the latest developments in the Rob Gronkowski saga in stride. While it will be some time before the long term reality of his back problem comes to light, history and human nature both leave you with a not-so-fresh feeling. There’s disappointment over the prospect that we’ve already seen the best of what this guy has to offer. That disappointment turns anger when you know that the way in which Gronk goes about his life outside of football could have and most likely has played a role in how this story is playing out. There are few athletes who have captivated this town — on and off the field — the way Gronkowski has in his short time in New England and no one is ready for that to end.
Anything less than a return to greatness will feel like a total waste, and even worse, an avoidable one at that.