FOXBOROUGH — When it comes to the Patriots offense, there’s one question that gets asked quite a bit: When are Gronk and Amendola coming back?
Tight end Rob Gronkowski, who underwent five surgeries between last November and mid-June — four on his left forearm and one on his back — and receiver Danny Amendola, who tore groin muscles in the Patriots’ Week 1 win over the Bills, are key components of an otherwise very young and inexperienced group of pass-catchers.
Without them, New England has had its problems moving the ball, with just nine first downs and a 4-for-18 third-down conversion mark against the Jets, to a 2-for-5 performance in the red zone against the Buccaneers. Through the first three games of the season, the Patriots are last in the league in red zone production, a far cry from the runaway success they’ve had in recent years.
Amendola was a key part of the Patriots’ win in Buffalo, giving a taste of what he can be for quarterback Tom Brady and the offense when he’s healthy — which, as his history before his arrival in New England showed, is not a given.
And Gronkowski has been the most dangerous red-zone threat in the league in his brief career, with 29 of his 38 touchdowns coming from inside the 20-yard line.
Both are on the road back, though it seems they are at different points on that road.
At this point, Gronkowski appears to be closer to a return. Before last week’s game against Tampa Bay, the Patriots upgraded his status for the game to questionable (50-50 chance of playing) from the doubtful (25 percent chance) he’d been listed at the first two weeks.
“I don’t even know [why he was upgraded],” Gronkowski said with a laugh Wednesday. “I don’t know how any of that works. So . . . I’m still wondering how that works – doubtful, questionable.
“I guess, like I said, I’ve been improving every week, so whoever makes that call must have seen some improvement to put me from doubtful to questionable.”
The typical recovery time for the discectomy he underwent in mid-June is 12 weeks, which was right around Week 1. But that procedure, combined with the multiple arm operations — three to reset a broken bone with plates, the fourth to clean out an infection — meant the 24-year-old was able to do very little for several weeks.
Gronkowski, who was in high spirits, dropping a few of the goofy one-liners he’s become known for, indicated his whole offseason has led to his slow recovery.
“That’s part of the whole rehab process – it’s not just rehabbing your arm and the back, I took off my whole body for a couple of months,” he said. “So you’ve got to get everything going again, all muscles firing again in all parts of your body. That’s a big process, getting back in shape, running shape, football shape, and getting your strength back.
“I’ve just been working on that the whole time the last few weeks also.”
Gronkowski added that his strength is improving week to week, and that it has improved “greatly” from where it was four weeks ago.
But as to when he’ll know he’s ready to play in a game again and just when that might be, he did not give details.
“Just when it clicks, I guess,” Gronkowski said. “All I can ask for is to work hard every day and do what the coaches ask me to do, do what my teammates ask me to do, and do what the training staff asks me to do. If I do that at full speed, that’s all I’m really asking for, and when the time’s ready, the time’s ready.
“I don’t know [about this week]. As of right now we’re just focusing day by day and tomorrow’s another step forward.”
On Monday, coach Bill Belichick was evasive when asked if Gronkowski had been close to getting on the field against the Buccaneers, repeating over and over that Gronkowski was inactive.
The tight end drew laughs when he was asked the same question and replied with a smile, “I was inactive.”
Amendola injured his groin in the preseason, and sat out the third and fourth exhibition games. He suffered a setback in the first half against the Bills, but returned for the second half, though he hasn’t played in a game since.
He did practice last week and on Wednesday, and was moving far better during the media-access window for Wednesday’s full-pads session than he was a week earlier.
“I’m feeling a lot better, going day by day, getting a lot of good treatment, running around,” he said at his locker. “It’s getting better; I’m feeling pretty good today. I anticipate being 100 percent shortly.
“I don’t know when, but I’m getting closer.”
It does not seem likely Amendola will play against the Falcons, and he acknowledged there is no timetable.
He also said there is no way of knowing whether playing the second half in Buffalo made his injury worse.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure. I felt like I could play,” Amendola said. “Right now I’m focused on getting better, that’s all I can say right now.”
Amendola considered surgery for a tear in an oblique muscle but ruled that out. Getting the procedure would have put him on the shelf for about a month.
He explained that he made the decision after soliciting advice from other places.
“I got a lot of opinions from different guys, and whatever got me out on the field fastest and in good health and good standing and where I could do what I can do, that’s the path we’re on now,” he said.
When that path gets him back on the field remains a mystery, however.