The natural instinct is usually to assign blame and pick a side, but let’s be clear about the situation between the Patriots and tight end Rob Gronkowski: There is no right or wrong here.
Gronkowski and the people in his corner are allowed to be cautious about sending him back out to the field. He has had five surgeries in the past year — four on his left forearm, one on his back — and a nasty infection in his forearm that have kept him out of the Patriots’ first six games. He already has rushed back twice from injury to poor results, and at just 24 years old, he has a lot at stake.
The Patriots, meanwhile, aren’t necessarily wrong if they want Gronkowski back in the lineup (publicly, the players, coaches, and management have stood behind Gronk’s decision to sit out). His last forearm surgery was in May, and Gronkowski has been practicing well for weeks. If Gronkowski is indeed waiting for final approval from Dr. James Andrews, is the bone really going to be that much better next week than this week?
A league source insisted that the reported rift between Gronk and the team is overblown, and that the Patriots are understanding of Gronkowski’s precaution; they want him to be productive for several more years. But the Patriots feel he is as ready to play as he’ll be this season, and they have put the decision to return squarely in Gronk’s hands.
Gronkowski is leaning on Andrews, the noted orthopedic surgeon who consulted on the fourth and final forearm surgery. Patriots president Jonathan Kraft said on Sunday’s pregame radio show that he knew of the Gronkowski-Andrews relationship only through media reports, but he said he encourages all players to seek outside medical counsel.
“No one here questions Rob’s desire or passion for the game,” Kraft said. “Rob’s going to know when he can play.”
Andrews, who operates on hundreds of athletes a year and is on the Redskins’ medical staff, is being portrayed as the key person who will allow Gronkowski to finally get back on the field. But league sources say that isn’t necessarily the case; one said that Gronkowski’s father, Gordy, is heavily involved in the decision-making.
Which makes sense, of course. Gordy, a former college football player who started a successful gym equipment business, has been a key figure in Rob’s athletic career for all 24 years, and still accompanies him when Rob holds youth football camps and book signings.
The Gronkowskis have seen their son rush back from an ankle injury to play in the Super Bowl, and rush back from the broken forearm last season only to re-break it two games later. Who could blame them for wanting to keep him off the field a little longer this time?
And let’s not kid ourselves, there is a lot of money at stake here.
Gronkowski signed a contract extension in 2012 worth a maximum of $55 million, but he needs to stay healthy all the way through the 2015 season to receive most of it — which, after the medical scares of the last 12 months, looks like a daunting task.
Gronkowski will get his $3.75 million base salary (plus a $250,000 workout bonus) in 2014 no matter what.
The key year is 2015. Gronkowski’s $4.75 million base salary is fully guaranteed, but only if he’s on the team on the fifth day of the 2015 league year (sometime in mid-March). If he’s not an effective player anymore, the Patriots can cut him and save $5.35 million in cap space for the 2015 season.
Assuming the Patriots keep Gronkowski for 2015, he really needs to have a big season. He has a $10 million option bonus in his contract, and the Patriots have until the very last day of the 2015 league year (sometime in March 2016) to make a decision on it.
If Gronkowski is good and healthy, he gets his $10 million, and as much as $27 million more on a contract that runs through 2019. If he’s hurt or not productive? The Patriots can cut bait before or after 2015 and avoid paying up to $41 million of a contract with a maximum of $55 million.
Add in the fact that Gronkowski is making only the league minimum $630,000 this season, and it’s easy to see why his people don’t want him rushing back to the field so quickly.
But it’s not wrong, either, if teammates and coaches think Gronk should be back by now. The offense is struggling without him, Sunday’s 30-27 win over the Saints notwithstanding. They are 30th in red-zone offense and quarterback Tom Brady still goes long stretches where he struggles to move the football.
Most of Gronk’s teammates are playing through injuries. The way Gronk has practiced the last few weeks, they wonder why he’s not helping out on Sundays.
I can’t sit here and say what Gronk should or shouldn’t do this season. I don’t know his full medical condition, and it’s not my treasure chest of money at stake. Gronk also hasn’t been healthy for the last two postseasons.
So if the Patriots can afford to keep using a roster spot on him, maybe it does make sense to keep Gronk out for a while, perhaps until Thanksgiving or later. The Patriots’ 5-1 record certainly makes it more palatable to remain cautious.
But the team’s now-lengthy injury report — with Danny Amendola (head), Jerod Mayo (shoulder), and Aqib Talib (hip) joining Tommy Kelly (knee), Vince Wilfork (Achilles’), and Shane Vereen (hand) on the sideline — may force action on Gronkowski’s situation soon, as every roster spot becomes precious.
Gronk is dealing with a bone that has had five months to heal, not a torn ligament or concussion. It’s hard to imagine that an extra week or two of rest will put all of his fears to rest.
If he’s not mentally ready to play soon, the Patriots may as well just put him on injured reserve, give him a year off from the brutal beating of football and let him have a healthy offseason for a change.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.