For the last two years, the New England Patriots have had their seasons ende with their most important weapon, tight end Rob Gronkowski, injured and either not on the field or on the field and a shell of his usual self.
In 2011, it was Bernard Pollard's drag-down tackle that gave Gronk a high-ankle sprain. Gronkowski was nothing more than a decoy two weeks later in Super Bowl XLVI.
He showed some lingering effects of his ankle injury and subsequent surgery early in the 2012 season, yet his stat line remained on the epic pace he established in 2011, averaging a touchdown per game, and over 14 yards per catch.
Last season, Gronk broke his forearm in Week 11 against the Indianapolis Colts while blocking for an extra point in a blowout win. He returned in Week 17 against the Miami Dolphins but looked tentative, despite scoring a touchdown. Two weeks later, in the divisional round of the playoffs against the Houston Texans, Gronkowski reinjured his forearm on the second possession of the game, and his season was over, leaving him unable to help the Pats get by the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship.
Despite injury concerns coming out of college, Gronkowski did not miss a game in his first two-and-a-half seasons in the NFL. Now, after a fourth surgery on his broken forearm and back surgery looming, Patriots fans might be starting to wonder if they'll ever see their dominant tight end back on the field.
Per source, Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski will need back surgery. Tentatively set for mid-June. He'll likely miss at least part of camp.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) May 29, 2013
Sources told ESPNBoston.com that the back surgery not considered serious: "He is going to be fine long term," a source close to Gronkowski said. "[He is] not worried about the short term, i.e., start of training camp."
Unfortunately, Gronkowski plays one of the most physically demanding positions in the NFL. He's blocking on the line, and he's in space running routes and taking big hits. But really, his injuries have been more of the freakish variety and not ones that give an indication that Gronk is truly injury prone.
Will Gronk be ready for opening day?
While his back is a situation to monitor, Gronkowski is an elite athlete, and at just 24-years-old, he still is young enough to bounce back from all the ailments of the past 16 months. While his forearm has been a lingering annoyance, it appears that injury is behind him now and should not have any long-term effect.
And there are some silver linings to take from all the injuries which have plagued Gronk.
First, are his legs. Gronkowski dealt with a hip issue early in 2012, a likely side effect from his ankle injury, but with reduced wear and tear, Gronk's legs should be fresh and healthy in 2013. Of course, the condition of his back could go a long way in determining that, but otherwise, the most important part of Gronk's physique should be primed and ready to go.
These were not knee or ankle injuries, ones that would effect his overall playing strength and speed.
Even if Gronk is not quite ready to go at the start of the season, it could be to the long-term benefit of the offense. The Patriots have a viable backup for their big tight end this year in Jake Ballard, and without Gronk, it would force Tom Brady to learn to rely on his new set of receivers, something that would only help speed the development of these new players.
If Gronk is in the lineup, Brady might be tempted to overuse him, while his other receiving threats struggle to get accustomed to the offense. That could also risk Gronkowski's recovery, so there's no need to rush it.
Gronk's presence would certainly make things easier on the receiver transition, but there are enough weapons in place to get by early in the season without him, including Ballard, Aaron Hernandez, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.
And if it puts the development of Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola, and Josh Boyce on the fast track, all the better.
Gronkowski still has a lot of football with the Patriots ahead of him. It certainly seems like he's been dealing with injuries for a while now, but once the situation with his back is determined, he should be on the road to full recovery.
It can't come soon enough for Patriot fans, but it is coming. Even if it is not by September, Gronkowski should be back to his touchdown-spiking ways by the end of the season, and that is when the Pats have needed and missed him most the last two seasons.