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Eric Wilbur's Sports Blog

Rob Gronkowski is Back as the Patriots' 'If' Factor


Is this finally it?

Is this the season that Rob Gronkowski has a healthy and lengthy postseason run?

For everything Gronkowski gives the Patriots’ offense, his presence come playoff time is like giving a kid a vintage Jawa action figure - with the cloth robe - still in its original packaging for Christmas. Look, don’t touch.

As he returns from his latest injury, Bill Belichick’s biggest challenge is obviously keeping the big fella healthy for a full season and beyond. He might as well be earmarked with the task of writing the definitive history of the Mayans.

Gronkowski took the first step back from his recovery from offseason ACL surgery on Monday when he declared himself ready to go on Sunday, when the Patriots open the 2014 NFL season against the Dolphins in Miami. “I’m ready to go. I’ll be playing,” the tight end said.

Music to the ears of Patriots fans and fantasy owners alike.

A healthy Gronk means a more dangerous offensive approach for Tom Brady and the New England offense, one that, unfortunately, comes with a caveat; When’s the next time Gronkowski goes down?

Whether it be a freak occurrence of not, injuries have followed Gronkowski through his four years in the NFL like a yapping Scrappy Doo with a whole lot of “ifs” attached to the annoyances. What IF Gronkowski weren’t hobbling on one ankle in the Super Bowl? What IF Brady had him at his disposal against the Broncos in January? What IF he were there against the Ravens in the AFC title game rematch in January, ’13?

Only if…

It’s easy to reason and daydream that the Patriots may indeed not be going on a decade since the last time the franchise hoisted Lombardi. But if Gronkowski is a tease, he is indeed one well worth the lingering concern.

What to expect from Week One though? Hopefully not much.

It’s impossible to predict how the Patriots will immediately utilize Gronkowski out of the gate against the Dolphins, primarily because he didn’t see any preseason action, but also because these are the Patriots we’re talking about. Common sense would suggest that Brady might utilize newcomer Tim Wright a bit more, with Gronkowski liable to attract double coverage, a wrinkle that shows just how his presence alone makes the Pats more dynamic. Or Brady could look his way 14 times on the afternoon resulting in a two touchdown day. Who knows?

The way Gronkowski plays with no abandon, it’s folly to wonder if the team is working him back into the offense too quickly, just as it’s naive to think Gronkowski playing at half speed is beneficial to anybody. In his return last season, the tight end played only 51 of a possible 79 snaps against the Jets. Brady targeted him 17 times for eight catches and 114 yards. Welcome back indeed. New England still lost, 30-27.

The next week against the Dolphins, Brady looked his way only five times, two catches for 27 yards. The Pats won, 27-17.

This Sunday? Heck, it’s anyone’s guess. Just don’t expect Gronkowski to look tentative in his first game back.

“I’ll be playing just like how I always play,” he said. “So, I mean, if there’s five guys coming at me, I’m on the sideline, I’m probably not going to take out all five of the guys. I’ll go out of bounds maybe there, but other than that, I’ll be playing just how I always play.”

That’s great news for the Patriots. What it means for the long term can be a bit disconcerting.

In five career postseason games, Gronkowski has only been Gronkowski once, an enormous three touchdown game against the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos. His playoff totals in his four other playoff games? One hundred seventy-eight yards receiving. Zero touchdowns.

But that’s out of the Patriots’ hands. All anyone can do is hold his or her breath and hope he’s there. Hope he’s healthy. Hope he can be the missing playoff ingredient the Patriots need to compete a potentially historic run.

For now, there’s Sunday.

“Seeing my boys grind every single day, my teammates working hard, it just made me want to work hard to get back out here, so it just feels good to be out here now this week preparing for the Dolphins, knowing that I put myself in the best situation the last few weeks, the last few months to get back out here,” he said.

He’s back. And the Pats are clearly better for it.

But for how long?

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