By Michael Parente
In theory, the idea of Rob Gronkowski carrying the New England Patriots on his back next season sounds great, except for the fact it’s now nothing more than a wide-eyed fantasy since Gronkowski’s back is apparently too fragile to support his own weight, let alone that of 51 teammates.
As if the forearm woes – that’s four separate surgeries on the same arm, for those keeping score at home – weren’t depressing enough, we’ve now learned New England’s Pro-Bowl tight end will undergo back surgery later next month, eliminating any chance of him starting training camp on time and putting his Week 1 status in jeopardy.
In typical Patriots’ fashion, we don’t know exactly what the problem is, other than that it’s a “disk issue” that will ultimately require a trip to noted spine specialist Dr. Robert Watkins, who, along with probation officers and family court judges, is probably the last guy that any young, virile professional athlete would want to visit. Steering clear of the no-spin zone, the Patriots have already put their own twist on this somber development, calling it a “minor” procedure, which is akin to describing a heart attack as indigestion. There’s no such thing as a “minor” back surgery. To make matters worse, this is Gronkowski’s second such procedure, with the first coming in 2009 during Gronkowski’s college days at the University of Arizona.
It’s a good thing the Patriots nabbed former Giants TE Jake Ballard last year – one of Tom Coughlin’s most mind-numbing waiver-wire gaffes – because fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez is still recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. Ballard has looked great at OTAs, but is still a risky roll of the dice, considering he’s only 16 months removed from a major knee injury that caused him to miss all of last year. Were it not for Ballard, Patriots’ Nation would be turning its lonely eyes to newly-acquired wide receiver Danny Amendola- another softie who hasn’t played a full season in three years.
To start penciling in the depth chart now would be putting the cart before the horse. We have no idea who’ll catch Tom Brady’s first pass in Week 1, nor do we know what the short- and long-term future holds for Gronkowski. He just signed an eight-year contract extension in June of 2012 worth $55.23 million with $13.7 million guaranteed. In other words, he’s not going anywhere anytime soon because the cap hit would be astronomical, but whether or not he’ll spend the remainder of his tenure in New England on the sidelines or on the playing field remains to be seen. We know the guy can bench-press a Volkswagen and looks great with his shirt off, but so does Ryan Reynolds, and he can’t run a post route. Apparently, neither can Gronkowski (until further notice).
Five surgeries in eight months is enough to qualify a player as injury-prone. Even when Gronkowski returns, there’ll be a collective gasp every time he hits the turf on the tail end of a diving catch. His value is undeniable; the Patriots were a high-octane scoring machine at the height of his short-lived reign in 2011, and there are some who think a healthy Gronkowski would’ve caught that Hail Mary at the buzzer in Super Bowl XLVI.
For a second, forget what you think of Gronkowski’s off-field antics. This isn’t about posing for Twitter photos with porn stars or body-slamming pals at Las Vegas nightclubs. There’s never been any direct link between Gronkowski’s jackass behavior and his inability to stay healthy, even if his Bruno Sammartino impression occurred weeks after he reinjured his forearm in the team’s playoff loss to Baltimore. The fact is it’s easier to turn the other cheek when the player is healthy and producing. Gronkowski isn’t, so this meathead mindset is tougher to swallow.
The real question is whether or not the Patriots can continue to roll with Gronkowski in their foxhole knowing full well there’s a chance he’ll tweak, break or twist something along the way. The two-tight end set has worked brilliantly with Brady at the helm. With perhaps only a few, maybe two, great years left on Brady’s golden arm, do the Patriots even dare think about drafting another tight end next year or dip their toes in the free-agent pool (Jermichael Finley might be available next winter) while the window of opportunity is still open? How many more times will Gronkowski have to go under the knife until he gets Wally Pipp’d?
What we do know is Gronkowski can’t carry this team in 2013, or beyond. His body can’t handle the workload.
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