The 6'6", 265-pound playmaker—who's as entertaining off the field as on it—was leading tight ends in receiving yards per game, with 84.6. He missed the first six weeks of the season recovering from a different injury, but his 39 catches and 592 yards were still 19th- and 11th-best, respectively, among all tight ends this season.
Then, Browns safety T.J. Ward put an end to all of that by going low on Gronkowski:
Ward told reporters after the game, "If I were to hit him up high there’s a chance I'll be fined, so I was just being safe."
Ward's teammate, cornerback Jordan Poyer, told Tom Reed of the Northeast Ohio Media Group that Ward had no choice: "You saw what T.J. did today and you saw the outcome of it. I don't know what else they want us to do. That's what they preach, that's what they tell us to do."
League of Reprisal
Over the past few seasons, there's been a dramatic rise in public concern about concussions and their potentially deadly long-term effects and illnesses. Though no one is exactly sure how playing football leads to these mental diseases, trying to reduce high-impact hits to the head makes intuitive sense.
That's why the league has instituted rules changes like this season's so-called Trent Richardson rule, which bans running backs from blasting defenders with the crown of their helmet in the open field.
Further, the league has slapped defenders who fail to avoid the head and neck with fines and suspensions, like Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Dashon Goldson. These severe penalties are supposed to deter defenders from hitting opponents high.
But has the NFL jumped out of the concussion frying pan and into the ACL fire?
Poyer seems to think so. "At the end of the day that's how they want defenders to come in and hit guys," he said. "If he had come high there would have been a flag.”
Ward agreed, “When they set the rule, everyone knew what was going to happen."
Washington safety Brandon Meriweather sees things the same way. After serving a one-game suspension for hitting high, he vowed to target knees going forward.
"You just have to go low now, man," Meriweather said in October. "You've got to end people's careers. You got to tear people's ACLs and mess up people's knees. You can't hit them high anymore."
Meriweather was remorseful, but resolute: "I would hate to end a guy's career over a rule, but I guess it's better other people than me getting suspended for longer."
No Place in the Game
This debate between protecting the head and protecting the knees isn't new; it's been simmering all season long.
During the preseason, Houston Texans safety D.J. Swearinger put his helmet into the knee of Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller, rupturing his ACL, MCL and PCL and dislocating his kneecap.
Swearinger, like Ward, blamed the evolving rule book for his decision to take Keller's legs out. In fact, he told ESPN.com's James Walker he put two and two together back in college: "My senior year I had like three helmet-to-helmet [penalties]. I knew I had to change my style of play and start targeting low."
Receiver Brian Hartline, Keller's teammate, wasn't hearing it. "It's crap," Hartline said after the incident. "I think that, me personally, if you're sitting there telling me 'I'm worried about going high and for the head' [and] you consciously went low, then [that] is what you're trying to to tell me.
"I'm not a defensive player. But what I do know is that I have a lot of good pros on my team, and from what they have said to me is that there is no place for that in our game today."
What They're Saying
Defensive backs like Ward, Poyer and Swearinger say they're left little choice by the NFL's rules and enforcement—they have to go low to bring guys down, even if that means diving at the knees. Hartline's defensive teammates in Miami apparently disagree, saying there's no place in the game for hits like that.
What are the hittees saying? Given the choice between a concussion, which could knock them out of the game (and eventually lead to dementia or crippling depression), and knee ligament damage, which would end their season (and possibly derail their career), their choice is clear.
- "Hitting a defenseless player in his knee, that's something we all dread as players. That's my nightmare. Hit me in my head." —Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons tight end, per USA Today.
- “As a player, you have a warrior mentality. Players would rather take a shot high [rather than at the knees]. I get hit in the head and I miss a game or two. But if you take out my knees, my career is done.” —Rodney Harrison, former New England Patriots safety, per Bleacher Report.
- "I just think the helmet-to-helmet rule is so up in the air. They don’t even know what they’re calling… The guy’s defenseless, and the defender is knifing in at his knees. That’s not cool. That hit should be illegal." —New York Jets tight end Kellen Winslow, per the New York Daily News.
"That hit," going for the knees on a defenseless receiver, might soon be illegal. After the Swearinger hit, NFL vice president of football operations Ray Horton announced the league would be monitoring the impact of low hits and knee injuries and possibly ban hits to the knees of defenseless receivers in the offseason.
What will their review find?
Jenny Vrentas of The MMQB got access to some of the hardest-to-find NFL information there is: league-wide collective injury data. Per her research, ACL injuries have occurred between 48 and 56 times each of the past five seasons. At the time of her writing, 2013 was on pace for 57 such injuries.
Further, of all 32 ACL injuries MMQB staffers were able to find and review on tape, only the Swearinger hit was the direct result of a defender targeting the knees. Even adding in the Ward hit on Gronkowski, others they may not have found and others that may happen, it seems only a small handful of this season's ACL injuries will be due to knee targeting.
Ultimately, there are only so many ways to tackle, especially when you're a sub-200-pound safety trying to bring down a 250-plus-pound Colossus with a full head of steam. Rules, fines and suspensions aside, going high is already risky; going low is the best way to bring down somebody bigger and faster than you.
If only a handful of ACL injuries are due to direct hits, the majority must be coming from freak accidents and non-contact injuries (colloquially, "the turf monster"). There is no amount of rule changes or technique legislation that can eliminate that from the game.
In fact, there's no truly safe way for two sprinting men to crash into each other, but almost all defenders in almost all NFL games this season have found ways to get opponents on the ground without intentionally shredding knees in the process.
Intentional helmet-to-knee hits should be banned and heavily penalized—but the NFL should know full well it won't save the NFL's ACLs any more than banning head-to-head hits has eliminated concussions.