FOXBOROUGH — The news was delivered straight from Bill Belichick’s mouth on Wednesday morning, and brought great joy to Patriots fans everywhere.
“He’s been cleared to play,” Belichick said matter-of-factly about Rob Gronkowski, less than seven months removed from surgery to repair the ACL and MCL in his right knee.
It’s certainly good news that Gronkowski, who suffered the injury against the Browns in December, won’t have to start training camp on the physically unable to perform list, as he did last year. And by all accounts he worked diligently all offseason to rehab his knee and get back to peak shape, both at Gillette Stadium and with Dr. James Andrews down in Florida.
But I see something more at play here than Belichick delivering positive news about his star tight end.
Belichick, as always, was delivering a message, and it was aimed right at Gronkowski and the people managing his career:
No more nonsense. We’ve cleared you to play, so you’re going to play.
Don’t you find it interesting that Belichick so willingly declared Gronkowski ready to practice at his press conference? Since when does Belichick say anything publicly about injured players? Only when he has a message to deliver.
Quick back story: At the NFL owners meetings in March, Belichick gave me the stink eye when I asked him if he had any sort of timetable for Gronkowski’s return.
“Did you seriously ask me that question?” he replied with classic Belichick scorn.
We all had a good laugh at my feeble attempt to get any sort of real answer out of Belichick. But later that week, it was explained to me that Belichick wasn’t upset with the question, per se. The subtext under his answer was, “Do you really think I have a timetable for his return after everything we went through last year?”
Last year, Gronkowski came back on his own terms. He was recovering from three surgeries to repair a broken forearm, and a fourth surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back. Gronkowski didn’t participate with his teammates in training camp or play his first game until Week 7.
But the Patriots thought he could play much sooner. The team’s medical staff had cleared him for the Week 4 game at Atlanta — his travel bag was packed with his equipment on the Friday before the game — but Gronkowski’s camp stepped in and said he wasn’t ready to play, even though he looked dominant in practices. Gronkowski then sat out two more games, and the weekly game of “Will he or won’t he play?” turned into one giant headache for Belichick and the coaching staff.
That’s not to say Gronkowski’s camp was wrong for showing extreme caution before sending him back on the field. Gronkowski rushed back from injury on multiple occasions to help the team, to poor results — he needed ankle surgery following the Super Bowl loss in 2012, and re-broke his forearm in the 2013 playoffs. That forearm also got infected, leading to more surgeries. The botched recovery strained the relationship between Gronkowski’s camp and the Patriots’ medical staff, and Gronkowski now uses Andrews for his surgeries.
Gronk also has a lot of money at stake — a $10 million option bonus due after the 2015 season, should the Patriots decide to pick it up. He has sacrificed a lot for the team, and there’s nothing wrong with looking out for his best interests in a sport where his career could literally end on any play.
But this year, Belichick wants Gronkowski back on the field on the team’s terms. And that means sending a message from Day 1 — you’re not going on the PUP list, and you’ll play when we say you’re ready.
Now, Belichick isn’t dumb, either. He knows that the offense revolves around Gronkowski, and that the team’s Super Bowl dreams have been dashed the last three years because Gronkowski is never healthy at the end of the season. Just because Gronkowski has been “cleared to play” doesn’t mean Belichick is going to wear him out during training camp. Belichick knows he has to protect his most valuable asset, and won’t do anything stupid to jeopardize Gronkowski’s long-term viability.
Gronkowski, whose surgery was Jan. 9, appears to be right on schedule with other recent players coming off ACL tears. Robert Griffin III had surgery on Jan. 9 last year and was “cleared” on July 22. Darrelle Revis had surgery on Oct. 16, 2012, and was cleared the next July 24. Adrian Peterson had his surgery on Dec. 30, 2011, and was cleared the next Aug. 12.
All three of those players suited up for Week 1, but didn’t play a snap in the preseason, either. I would expect a similar return for Gronkowski. The preseason games are meaningless for him. We already know what he can do when healthy.
And I’m not sure how big of an impact he’s going to make early in the regular season. Griffin clearly was a shell of his former self early last season and could barely run. Revis admits it took him half of last season to get back into form. Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards the year after his ACL, but the Vikings initially worked him back slowly, too.
Andrews, who performed Gronkowski’s knee surgery, has politely declined all requests this offseason to talk about Gronkowski’s recovery, at the team’s request. But he told the St. Paul Pioneer-Press last year that the “first year back is a wash.”
And Andrews told Newsday: “It’s hard to predict recovery from an ACL surgery, and to say that we’re getting them back quicker than we used to would be false information from my standpoint.’’
So take Wednesday’s good news with a grain of salt. Yes, Gronkowski is back practicing with his teammates, and there’s a good chance that he will suit up for Week 1. But returning to his All-Pro form will take more time.
Belichick just wants Gronkowski and everyone else to know that it will be on the Patriots’ terms.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin