The question that greeted the Patriots at training camp and has hung around during the first five weeks of the NFL season like a neighborhood nuisance — When will Gronk come back? — appears ready to be answered.
According to multiple reports, tight end Rob Gronkowski should be cleared to play in Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium. He has been working his way back onto the field after having multiple surgical procedures during the offseason: one on his back, and four on his left forearm, which was broken twice last season.
Standing in the way may be Dr. James Andrews, a noted orthopedic surgeon who consulted during Gronkowski’s forearm treatment but did not perform any of the surgeries. The website ProFootballTalk said that Andrews will have the final say later this week as to whether Gronkowski will be cleared to play, because Andrews is “in charge of the decision-making process.” ESPN also reported Andrews’s role in Gronkowski’s potential return.
Both reports said that it’s likely Gronkowski will be cleared and will play against the Saints, but that it’s not a certainty.
Getting the two-time Pro Bowl tight end back likely would give the Patriots’ struggling offense a boost. Despite their 4-1 record, the Patriots are 24th in the league in points per game (19.0), and have completed only five passes all season to tight ends, none for touchdowns. In his three seasons with the Patriots, Gronkowski has averaged 4.3 receptions per game, and set NFL records for touchdown catches (17) and receiving yards (1,327) by a tight end in a season, in 2011.
Gronkowski has yet to miss a practice since of the start of the season, fueling weekly speculation that he soon might be healthy enough to play. The will-he-or-won’t-he story line has gained momentum the past few weeks, with Gronkowski being listed as “questionable” before each of the last three games. For the first two games this season, Gronkowski was “doubtful.”
But Gronkowski didn’t travel with the team to either Atlanta or Cincinnati for the most recent games, and was downgraded to “out” the day before each.
Gronkowski originally broke his forearm Nov. 18 last season, and missed the next five games. He rebroke it in the playoff opener against the Texans, then had three more surgeries on it during the offseason because of an infection.
The Patriots had the option before the season of placing Gronkowski on the physically unable to perform list, but that would have forced him to sit out the first six games. If he plays against the Saints Sunday in Week 6, that decision will pay off, but there’s another benefit: Players on the PUP list are forbidden to practice; Gronkowski hasn’t missed a workout, gaining valuable practice reps.
Recent reports indicated that the team and the player (and the player’s inner circle) were at odds over whether he was healthy enough to be playing, something Gronkowski dismissed one week ago.
“No, not at all,” Gronkowski said last Wednesday, when asked if he felt he were being pressured by the Patriots to return soon. “Everything is great around here. We were on the same page from the very get-go, and still on the same page, and it’s going good.
“I’m progressing every week, I’m feeling better every week, getting stronger every week, getting better conditioning every week. Still sticking to the motto, ‘day by day.’ Tomorrow’s another day, and we’ll go from there.”
You can be sure that quarterback Tom Brady, coach Bill Belichick, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are eager for Gronkowski to return, if only because they won’t be asked on a regular basis anymore about the tight end being out.
But there’s more to it than that. Whenever Gronkowski comes back, Brady and the offense will be getting a player who can help solve their red zone woes. The Patriots have driven 17 times inside the opponents’ 20-yard-line, yet scored only six touchdowns on those drives. At 35 percent, that percentage is next-to-last in the league, in front of only Jacksonville.
In Gronkowski’s record-setting 2011 season, 12 of his 17 receiving touchdowns came in the red zone.
Having him back should bring results. Playing without him has been reality.
“Our tight ends have done a nice job doing what we’ve asked them to do so far this season,” said McDaniels. “We all go through times of the year where our roster is continually in flux, and that’s every team in the league, and we’re absolutely no different.
“Everybody goes through injuries, everybody goes through periods of time where a player or two may miss time. Does it affect the entire balance of your offense? At times it does, but that’s what 32 teams have to figure out how to do every week.”
Because Gronkowski has been on the practice field and shown signs of a return, McDaniels has crafted game plans that have included him. So far, those have had to be scrapped.
“If Rob happened to be playing, then maybe we would tweak a few things, maybe we wouldn’t,” said McDaniels. “I know he’s practiced and been a part of our practices, which has been great, and he’s taken his share of reps.
“You just kind of do the best things that you can against the defense you’re playing, and if there’s a different player that’s available to you on Sunday, we deal with that.”
If things go well this week, the Patriots finally will have Gronkowski back in uniform. He’s been hesitant to say exactly when.
“When I’m ready, I’m ready,” Gronkowski said last week. “If it’s this Sunday, next Sunday, Sunday after, it’s just going day by day, and so I really couldn’t tell you when it’s going to be.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.