By: Eric Serna
Let me start this article by saying I have sacrificed a lot for our readers by writing this today. No, not because I’m a Giants fan. But because in searching for a picture like the one above, I had to endure pages upon pages of Mr. Gronkowski basically naked from when he did photo shoots for ESPN Magazine: The Body Issue. Literally every other picture, he had a shirt off or was wearing next to nothing (not that anything is wrong with that). But now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, this article is about something serious, and that is the mounting injury concerns for Rob Gronkowsi and why the New England Patriots need to really be concerned for their elite tight end.
My concern goes back before the forearm injury. The Patriots took a chance on a guy who many felt was one of the best tight end prospects in a long time, but had missed the first 3 games of 2008, and then the entire 2009 season due to a back injury, specifically a disc that required surgery to be shaved down. Before he was drafted, there were rumors that the issue was more serious in the form of spinal stenosis (similar to the concerns that arguably caused Jarvis Jones to slip in this past NFL Draft). Of course those rumors were shot down, but with all the question marks on his health, Gronkowski fell into the second round where he was finally chosen by the Patriots. Since then, he has become the best tight end in the NFL today in most circles, although I personally think Tony Gonzalez holds that title even today for production and durability. Nevertheless, Gronkowski lit the league on fire, and undoubtedly set a new standard on how to view and utilize tight ends in his first two years in the league by his dominance and record-breaking ability. This is especially true with an unheard of 2011 season where he put up 1,327 yards from 90 catches and a NFL record among tight ends with 17 touchdowns. But at the end of that same season, he suffered a high ankle sprain in the AFC Championship, which lingered even in Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants. A huge storyline leading up to the game, it was obvious Gronkowski was almost a non factor, becoming one of many reasons for the Patriots downfall in the loss against the Giants. During the offseason, it was discovered that Gronkowski had strained ligaments and needed to have surgery to repair his ankle.
Fast forward to this season, although coming off ankle surgery from the offseason, Gronkowski had regained most of his form to continue to be a threat and factor as the Patriots number one target not named Wes Welker. Something seemed to be off from the previous year as the season progressed, but that didn’t matter much when Gronkowski broke his forearm against the Colts in Week 11, leaving his status for the rest of the year in jeopardy. He would come back in Week 17 and in time to start in the playoffs, but then re-broke the same forearm in the playoff game against the Houston Texans, ending his season. The Patriots looked lost offensively the following game without their best tight end, letting go of the gas pedel in the second half to let to Baltimore Ravens advance into Super Bowl XLVII. As of today, Gronkowski has had a total of four surgeries on the same forearm, for the re-break and for issues such as infections. Although the chance is slim, if he has any setbacks, he will require a fifth surgery on the same forearm. In total for his career (collegiate and pro), Gronkowski has had 6 surgeries. And now, there is a very likely chance for a 7th surgery for “chronic” back pain, which reports are showing it is another disc issue (although not the same disc from 2009, but is an issue he dealt with since last year). Add in the aforementioned possibility of a setback, a worse case scenario is that he will have undergone 8 surgeries before the start of the upcoming 2013 season. That alone is a serious concern of the longevity to a player the Patriots just made the highest paid tight end in NFL history last year.
The goal is for Gronkowski to be healthy enough to be back at least in time for the preseason even with back surgery, that is barring any setbacks in his recovery. Not even adding to the fact that he hasn’t been able to fully workout out due to the forearm issues, and still can’t until he has passed the final point of his recovery. I have no doubt he will be able to get into football shape in time for the first game of the season. But here is the real problem: Rob Gronkowski now has to be labeled injury-prone. Players and all the other 31 teams will know this. And with the departure of Wes Welker, there is too much uncertainty with the Patriots offensive weapons for Gronkowski to not be the number one target for the Patriots, as well as other NFL teams. Danny Amendola and Julien Edleman are also injury-prone, Aaron Hernandez is a number one tight end on all other 31 rosters, but is clearly not the same dominant factor as his counterpart. Jake Ballard is a physical tight end that could be called on during the season, but is coming off of a torn ACL injury that caused him to miss the 2012 season. Aside from these players, there are no proven playmakers on this offense. Unless one of the many rookie receivers the Patriots drafted or brought in becomes a surprise starting caliber player, the Patriots need Gronkowski not just for the start of the season, but if they hope to have any chance at a Super Bowl appearance. Even more concerning is how fast Rob Gronkowski fell from being the future for this franchise, to now being a short-term solution at best. I love watching this guy play and I hope to get many more years of doing just that. But with the physical toll expected from that position and all the issues brought to light recently, I just don’t see how “Gronk” is even going to make it to the end of his recent NFL contract without getting another injury to add to his resume.