The Patriots and star tight end Rob Gronkowski released a joint statement late Thursday night, stating that it is in Gronkowski’s “best long-term interest to undergo surgery to address his lower-back injury” and that Gronkowski has likely played his last snap of the 2016 season.
Gronkowski will undergo surgery to repair a herniated disk on Friday, an injury that flared up in last Sunday’s win against the Jets. The surgery will be performed in Los Angeles by noted back specialist Dr. Robert Watkins, who performed similar disk surgeries on Gronkowski in 2009 and 2013.
“We do not expect that he will be able to play for the remainder of the 2016 season, but will await the results of tomorrow’s surgery before making a final determination,” the statement read. “Rob has always been one of our hardest workers and was voted captain for the leadership he provides on our team. We are deeply saddened any time a player is lost to injury. We are committed to assisting Rob throughout his recovery and look forward to his return to playing football for the New England Patriots.”
Gronkowski, 27, faces yet another crossroads in a career that has been plagued by injury. He has missed 22 career games (regular season and playoff) because of injuries, which have included a torn ACL, a broken forearm that required four surgeries, and two separate surgeries on his back. Gronkowski also missed his final season of college football in 2009 because of surgery to repair a herniated disk. Gronkowski also missed two games, and barely played in two others, to start the 2016 season because of a pulled hamstring.
“It doesn’t help losing great players, and to not have Gronk out there as one of our best players and most dependable, consistent players, makes things challenging for us,” Tom Brady said on Westwood One Radio. “But that’s what the NFL season is about, it’s about overcoming challenges, adversities. We have a lot of good players on our team that are going to need to step in and fill the void.”
Gronkowski’s latest back injury comes after suffering injuries in each of the last two games he has played. In the statement, the Patriots explained that Gronkowski suffered a pulmonary contusion to his lung three weeks ago on a hit from Seahawks safety Earl Thomas. Gronkowski finished the game but was later examined by several specialists at Massachusetts General Hospital as directed by the team, as well as an independent physician, and sat out the Patriots’ next game at San Francisco.
The Patriots said Gronkowski received medical clearance to return to play last week against the Jets, and he “began to experience significant back and leg pain” shortly after landing hard on the turf on an incomplete deep pass.
Former Chargers team doctor David Chao said that herniated disks are often cumulative injuries, and the Thomas and Jets hits were the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Gronkowski took the big hit on the third snap of the Jets game, yet came out for the Patriots’ next offensive series and played four snaps. He didn’t appear to look injured, crouching in a three-point stance and running three passing routes. His final snap of the day was a deep sideline route that fell incomplete after a defender grabbed Gronkowski’s arm. Gronkowski did not pull up lame on the play or show any signs of a back injury.
But the injury worsened shortly thereafter, and Gronkowski left the game with a team of trainers at the end of the first quarter. He was seen walking gingerly to the team buses after the game, needing to use a railing just to get down a small flight of stairs.
Gronkowski has played in eight games this year, catching 25 passes for 540 yards and three touchdowns. He leads the NFL with a 21.6-yard average, but he hasn’t scored a touchdown since setting the Patriots record four games ago against Buffalo.
The Patriots only have two other tight ends on the roster — Martellus Bennett and journeyman Matt Lengel — after releasing Clay Harbor and trading A.J. Derby to the Broncos earlier this year. Fullback James Develin can also fill some of Gronkowski’s duties.
Gronkowski also has been careful about returning from injuries ever since the experience with his forearm in 2012. He rushed back to play in the playoffs, rebroke the bone, then required three more surgeries — two to clear out an infection and one to fix the bone.
Gronkowski last had back surgery in June 2013, and he didn’t return to the field until Week 7 in late October. In his family’s book, “Growing up Gronk,” he described his rehab regimen from his first back surgery in 2009.
Gronkowski could barely walk for the first three weeks, and it took him about six weeks before he could start doing core exercises again.
“I just chilled for a month and a half, sitting on the couch,” Gronkowski said. “That’s basically all you can do.”
“He felt like an anchor was strapped to his back,” wrote the author, Jeff Schober. “Movements were limited and tentative. A sudden shift drew sharp daggers raking against his spine. His body needed to remain straight and avoid sideways movements for six weeks afterward.”
While this injury casts doubt on Gronkowski’s NFL future, the Patriots have no need to make any rash decisions on his place with the team. He is under contract for three more seasons, with a team-friendly salary in place for 2017 — a $4.25 million salary, a $250,000 offseason workout bonus, and $500,000 in roster bonuses ($31.250 for every game he plays).
While back surgery is never ideal, there’s certainly the hope that surgery will fix the issue for the time being and, if Gronkowski can’t get back for this season, will at least have 10 months to heal before the start of the 2017 season.
“Everyone’s thinking about him and what he’s gone through in such a physical sport,” Brady said. “It’s hard to see people that you care about go through injuries and he’s gone through his fair share. But I also know the resolve that he has and that will never change with him. He’ll be as determined as ever to get back and get better as soon as possible.”
Patriots/Gronkowski family statement on Rob Gronkowski
During the Seattle game on November 13, Rob sustained a hit to the chest that resulted in a pulmonary contusion to his lung. Rob was examined by several specialists at Massachusetts General Hospital as directed by the team, as well as an independent physician. He received medical clearance to return to play two weeks later for the New York Jets game on November 27. After a hit early in the Jets game, Rob began to experience significant back and leg pain. This injury forced him to leave the game and he did not return. With the help of the Patriots medical staff, along with the consultation of several medical experts, it has been determined that it is in Rob’s best long-term interest to undergo surgery to address his lower back injury. Rob is expected to have surgery tomorrow. We do not expect that he will be able to play for the remainder of the 2016 season, but will await the results of tomorrow’s surgery before making a final determination. Rob has always been one of our hardest workers and was voted captain for the leadership he provides on our team. We are deeply saddened any time a player is lost to injury. We are committed to assisting Rob throughout his recovery and look forward to his return to playing football for the New England Patriots.