Rob Gronkowski is expected to make his long-awaited return to the football field after being cleared by his medical advisers, according to his agent.
He’s listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the New York Jets. And if Bill Belichick is anything like the Patriots’ fervent fanbase, he can’t wait to unleash his prized offensive weapon.
The best way to understand what the Patriots have missed in the first six games of this season without Gronk is in considering how big of a difference he means to the team’s ability to score points. (Does anything else matter?) Gronk scored touchdowns so frequently, sometimes people fail to realize how miraculous he was. In 48 career games, including the playoffs, he has reached the end zone a little under a touchdown a game (0.85). Had he played in this first leg of the season, he would have at least five right now at that kind of pace.
But we don’t work in hypotheticals. After re-injuring his forearm on Jan. 3, Gronkowski has been Question No. 1 when it comes to the Patriots ever since. And we have projected his return date, and re-projected his return date, with ad naseum since the news of his back surgery first came to our attention in the spring. The projections have been wrong countless times. We know that now in hindsight, which is all the more reason why he has been cautious.
On Sunday, it will have been a little less than 41 weeks, or more than nine months, and precisely 290 days in between games for Gronk, which we’re still not sure about. He’s had to tell reporters that he’s “day-to-day” for more than a month and a half. And despite his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, telling the media his client has been medically cleared to play, Belichick won’t budge on commenting about his star tight end. We won’t know for sure until 90 minutes before kickoff.
In between time, he’s had his mom come to bat for him. There have been reports of a divide between his camp and Patriots management. There have been reports of a divide over Gronkowski in the Patriots locker room. And there’s his contract to consider.
All of that comes to a halt as soon as he hits the field.
After five surgeries in the last year and a half, including four on his left forearm alone, Gronkowski can be the difference maker for an offense that has been bereft of explosiveness, particularly in the red zone. Of Gronkoski’s 38 career receiving touchdowns, 29 have been inside the 20-yard line. And against the Jets, Gronkowski has tallied 24 receptions for 313 yards and four touchdowns in six games.
What can you expect from a guy who has missed so much time, but has reportedly appeared dominant in practice? He was so good playing the role of Jimmy Graham ahead of the New Orleans Saints game, that he won a practice award. But is he ready for prime time? We don’t know and the Patriots aren’t telling. But we know where he can help most right away.
“He’s just a big target and he’s got a great catch radius,” said Tom Brady.
That was more than a month ago while Brady was considering the team’s red zone woes without Gronk to throw it to.
“We’ve played with him for a long time and had him in our offense so you realize the caliber of player that he is,” Brady said. “ … We’re focused on trying to be a good offense no matter who is out there. Whenever guys get back, they’ll have to deal with a different skill set, but we’re just focused on having the guys out there that have done the job for us thus far.”
The last time Gronkowski saw the Jets, almost exactly a year to the date away from Sunday’s game (Oct. 21, 2012), he shredded their defense for a pair of scores on six receptions for 78 yards.
Is it an omen?
The Patriots will never get their hopes up. But if there’s one player that can legitimize this offense — make it great, not just good — outside of Brady himself, it’s Gronkowski. The Patriots need that extra umph. Already 5-1 and going through what was perceived to be the team’s toughest stretch of the season, a healthy Gronkowski could mean a world of a difference on the back end of the season when the injuries become too much.
But, of course, I’ll wait till I see it first.
What do you think?
The next men up
With so many key injuries, the Patriots have to rely on their depth. Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo are done for the season. Danny Amendola (concussion/groin) and Tommy Kelly (knee) are out for Sunday’s game. Aqib Talib (hip) is doubtful. Others are banged up. They need somebody — a lot of somebodies — to step up against the Jets. Here’s who the spotlight will be on:
Jamie Collins — The rookie linebacker will get a shot to fill Mayo’s spot at weakside linebacker. He’s a former safety who has good athleticism but has had a limited role because of the players in front of him. This is his opportunity.
Dane Fletcher — The veteran linebacker of three seasons will possibly get a chance to replace some of Mayo’s snaps as well. He was a five-game starter for the Patriots in 2011, the season prior to tearing his ACL, in which he tallied 32 combined tackles and a forced fumble. He got high praise from coach Belichick this week, saying “Dane has really not only stepped up his performance but also he’s given us good leadership and communication on the field.” That could be a sign that Fletcher, not Collins, could step in for Mayo. When Spikes missed time during OTAs, Fletcher was the team’s middle linebacker.
Duron Harmon — Every time an injury has occurred in the secondary, or just somebody needs a blow, Harmon has been the man the Patriots have turned to to step in and help. The rookie safety has filled in for Steve Gregory when he has needed to come out of games and he was the first man off the bench when the team shifted Devin McCourty to cornerback after Talib was injured. He could see an increased role if the team’s star cornerback, who is listed as doubtful, cannot go.
Austin Collie — Collie stepped right up in the heat of the moment against the New Orleans Saints, catching two passes on the game-winning drive. He certainly has earned respect and he’ll likely get more opportunities with Amendola out for Sunday’s game.
From the archives: Memories of a rivalry
If you’re a Jets fan, when you think of the rivalry with the Patriots, you probably remember Bart Scott’s growling, “can’t wait!”
If you’re a Patriots fan, when you think of the rivalry with the Jets you probably remember the “butt fumble”
Lots of good memories from each and every game, but these two will seemingly last forever.
Read this, link that
Erik Frenz sizes up this week’s key matchup, Patriots corner Kyle Arrington vs. Jets wide receiver Jeremy Kerley.
Rob Gronkowski’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, decided to take it upon himself to let the world know Gronk has been cleared to play.
My Week 7 NFL picks.
On RadioBDC Thursday, Adam XII and I talked Patriots-Jets and what the loss of Jerod Mayo means to the team. Give it a listen on BDC Wire.
Tweet of the week
I think this stands on its own.
@Chan95Jones lovin’ your sack dance, dude! Deja vu!
— Pee-wee Herman (@peeweeherman) October 13, 2013
Boston.com user gipp11 writes on “Agent: Gronkowski cleared to play”:
“Too bad he’s not a nose tackle or middle linebacker or cornerback. Doesn’t matter if he’s back or not — defense wins championships, and the Pat’s D is hollowing out game by game. Gronk might as well sit out the whole year, it doesn’t really matter.”
That may very well be the case. The severity of Talib’s hip injury is particularly troubling after having such a fantastic start. And Mayo’s production will not easily be replaced. How that comes together, against a tough Jets team this weekend, will speak volumes about this Patriots team going forward.
What’s to come
– At about 11:30 a.m. Sunday, the Patriots will announce whether or not Gronkowski will be active for this week’s game against the Jets. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. at MetLife Stadium.
– After the Patriots face the Jets, they host the Miami Dolphins and then Pittsburgh Steelers before finally getting their bye week in Week 10.
– We’ll have pregame, in-game, and postgame coverage on Boston.com of Patriots-Jets action.
– Alfonzo Dennard got his court date pushed back again. He won’t be due back in a Nebraska courtroom until Nov. 13 after admitting to violating his probation for a suspected DUI.
Zuri Berry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.