FOXBOROUGH — Not that anything different was expected, but Rob Gronkowski didn’t shed any light on whether he’ll make his much-anticipated return to the Patriots lineup for Sunday’s Week 6 game with the Saints.
“It’s basically nothing new,” the tight end said on Thursday. “I’m just working hard every week, working hard out at practice, and nothing’s changed.
“We’re day by day, like we’ve been from the very beginning, and it’s all about the New England Patriots versus the New Orleans Saints this weekend and it’s going to be exciting. They’ve got a good team.”
With the Patriots 31st in the NFL in red-zone success, getting Gronkowski back — he has scored 30 red-zone touchdowns in his career — could provide a big boost. Asked if he believes the team needs him as he watches the games, he said, “I’m just doing whatever the coach asks me to do. I’m out at practice, doing what my teammates ask me to do, and just to help the team out to my max ability.”
There have been multiple reports that Gronkowski will return Sunday, but when asked if he feels he can play, he gave no indication.
“I’m just working every day, and improving every day to my max and taking it day by day,” he said.
Gronkowski gave much the same answer when asked whether there is something in particular he and his doctors are looking for, something quantifiable that will let them know he’s ready to play.
“Um . . . really just taking it each day at a time and trying to improve every day at a time and that’s all,” he said.
Gronkowski, who has undergone four surgeries on his left forearm and one on his back since last November, has participated in every practice since Sept. 2, when the Patriots began preparing for their regular-season opener against Buffalo.
He did acknowledge that after weeks of being able to do very little physically as he recovered, his conditioning has improved, but again he reverted to his familiar “day by day” refrain.
“I’m improving every week and obviously when I started at the beginning, conditioning was pretty rough, but that’s what practice is for and working hard is for,” he said. “So just improving every week, taking it day by day, and we’ll be super excited when I get out there.”
Even Tom Brady seemed exasperated with the Great Gronk Wait when his teammate’s name came up during the quarterback’s weekly Wednesday press conference.
“Whenever that happens, who knows?” Brady said. “I feel like I’ve kind of talked about it a lot the past five weeks. If he’s there, he’s there. If he’s not, he’s not. We’re going to try to win anyway.”
When he does return, Gronkowski said, it will be a “great feeling.”
“Just been working hard toward that goal and working hard to achieve that, so it’s going to be exciting and when it happens, it’s going to be awesome,” he said.
One that got away
Rob Ninkovich was a fifth-round pick of the Saints in 2006, after an All-Big Ten career at Purdue.
But his time in New Orleans didn’t go as planned. Three games into his rookie season, Ninkovich tore his ACL, and he was released a little less than a year later. Over the next two years, Ninkovich bounced between the Dolphins and Saints and the 53-man roster and practice squads for each team.
In his last chance with the Saints, in the 2009 offseason and preseason, he was told to work as a long snapper, which he reluctantly did, only to be released in favor of another long snapper early in training camp.
Patriots fans know the rest of the story. Picked up by New England a couple of days after his release, Ninkovich has blossomed from special teamer and part-time defensive player to a stalwart with a knack for making big plays.
On a conference call with Saints media this week, Ninkovich was told that New Orleans coach Sean Payton considers him one that got away, and he was asked whether he gives Payton any ribbing when he sees him.
“At the time, when you’re a young guy, you don’t realize necessarily how things work,” Ninkovich said. “Now looking back on it, it’s been a blessing for everything to kind of happen the way it did and give me the chance to come here and play and make a name for myself.
“It goes back to when I was a rookie. Getting hurt didn’t help me. It set me back, and with the NFL being a business like it is, they’re just trying to get the best guys on the field that they can.
“I have no ill feelings towards the Saints or towards Sean. I know that it’s business and I’m happy that I was able to get the opportunity to come here and play football for the New England Patriots.
“It was a great learning experience for me, not only just in general but in life. It was a life lesson to pursue your goals and go after things that you want. It just kept me motivated, really, and to stay hungry for my long-term goals and playing in the NFL.”
Ninkovich is one of the few current Patriots defenders who was on the roster the last time the team played the Saints, in 2009, though at the time he was still mostly a special teamer.
Rookie linebacker Jamie Collins did not participate in Thursday’s practice, but his absence was not injury-related. On Wednesday, fellow rookie Michael Buchanan missed practice, with the same reason given (non-injury). He returned to the field Thursday . . . Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly (knee) and running back Leon Washington (ankle) missed practice for the second straight day, as did three New Orleans starters: safety Roman Harper (knee), receiver Lance Moore (hand), and right tackle Zach Streif (ankle). The rest of the injury reports remained the same.Shalise Manza Young can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.