The good news for Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is that doctors felt confident enough that the infection in his forearm had cleared that they could perform surgery on his back Tuesday.
But now he faces a lengthy rehab and a lot of uncertainty over when he can return to the football field.
Gronkowski, 24, had surgery to fix a herniated disk performed in Los Angeles by noted back surgeon Robert Watkins. The surgery is relatively routine and takes less than an hour, according to experts, and Gronkowski’s surgery went off without a hitch, a league source told the Globe.
When the Patriots can get Gronkowski back, though, is unclear. The generally accepted rehab schedule from disk surgery is approximately 12 weeks – six weeks for the scar to heal, and six weeks to get strength and conditioning back to the point where he can play football. But that appears to be a best-case scenario.
The 12-week window puts Gronkowski right up against the Patriots’ Week 1 game at Buffalo Sept. 8. He conceivably could be ready to play in the opener. More likely, the Patriots would opt to be conservative and hold him out anywhere from one to six games.
Gronkowski is a near-lock to begin the preseason on the physically unable to perform list, which means he can't participate with the team in training camp practices. He can be taken off the PUP list at any time in the preseason, but if he remains on it at the start of the season, he must by rule sit out the first six games.
The Patriots could also opt to take Gronkowski off the PUP list before the start of the season but still hold him out for as many games as they see fit.
This is the second back surgery Gronkowski has undergone. He had a similar disk operation in September of 2009 and missed his final season at the University of Arizona, finally getting medical clearance to return to football activities in January of 2010.
Tuesday’s surgery was on a different disk than the one that was repaired in 2009, according to his agent, Drew Rosenhaus,
The disk injury dropped Gronkowski to the second round of the 2010 draft, but he has not missed a game because of a back problem in three NFL seasons, catching 38 touchdowns in 43 games. Rosenhaus said Gronkowski played the entire 2012 season with the back condition.
Tuesday’s surgery came almost a month after Gronkowski had his fourth surgery on his left forearm. He broke the forearm last November and again in January, and the wound became infected, necessitating two additional surgeries to clear it out.
Gronkowski was forced to wait a month after the last forearm surgery before having the back surgery because the infection needed to be completely eradicated.