FOXBOROUGH — The bounce was back.
Rob Gronkowski had that familiar exuberance in his step at practice this week, high-stepping his way through stretching and warm-ups and zipping through drill lines as staffers whacked him with pads trying to knock the ball loose.
It’s been nearly a month since the big tight end has played — he caught three passes for 43 yards in the Week 8 win in Buffalo — but he appears on track to play Sunday against the Jets in the Meadowlands.
“Yeah, I feel good,’’ Gronkowski said after Friday’s practice. “I’m ready to go. Sunday afternoon in New York it’s going to be a hostile environment — it always is. They’re a good team. They play hard. I can’t recall a game where I would say they haven’t played hard in my nine years playing them. So it’ll be a good one. It’ll be a tough one, but it’ll be a good one.’’
Season No. 9 has been a rough one for Gronkowski, who has battled injuries, inconsistency, and an incessant amount of talk that the perennial Pro Bowler has lost a step.
Gronkowski has missed three games, his production is down (29 catches, 448 yards), and his only trip to the end zone came in Week 1. He’s dealt with a nagging ankle injury nearly the entire season and a back injury forced him to miss the Week 7 win in Chicago. Both injuries have made him a limited participant in practice.
Gronkowski is officially listed as questionable but reiterated that the work he’s done to rehab his injuries has him in a good spot.
“Just working hard, working with all the people around me,’’ he said. “I had a lot of good people to work hard with, do exercises, get everything back right and just keep on grinding every day so I can get back out there with my teammates, and that’s what it will be on Sunday.’’
Given his history of back injuries and surgeries, Gronkowski was asked if he was worried about getting re-injured.
“I’m not worried at all,’’ he said. “Just feel good and I’m excited for the game Sunday.’’
Pressed if it was specifically back spasms that kept him out, he said, “I don’t even know what it was . . . I just had to fix it.’’
The missed time could have a financial impact for Gronkowski, who had up to $3.3 million incentives added to his contract in August.
Gronkowski will receive and extra $1.1 million if reaches three of the following four targets: 80 percent of the offensive snaps, 70 receptions, 1,085 yards, and/or nine touchdowns.
Gronkowski would really need to turn it on to reach any of the latter three numbers. The five-time Pro Bowler would need to average nearly 7 catches, 106 yards, and 1.3 TDs per game.
He said Friday he doesn’t concern himself with personal statistics.
“No, not really,’’ he said. “Wins are the biggest part. It’s the culture around here, just do the best you can, do what you’ve got to do to help the team. If the statistics come with it, they come with it, but whatever we’ve got to do as a unit, as a whole, to go there and get the win.’’
He could start his assault on the numbers against a Jets team that is reeling, having lost four straight and coming off a 41-10 loss to the Bills in which journeyman Matt Barkley threw for 232 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Gronkowski was the subject of New York Daily News column this week where he was described as “a decrepit version of his former indestructible self.’’ The accompanying headline was “A weak end at . . . Gronkie’s” and featured a “Weekend at Bernie’s” movie poster illustration of Gronkowski being held up by Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
Playing coy, Gronkowski said he hadn’t seen the story but then added with a smile, “Heard there was some like crazy weekend though at my house. It gets crazy.’’
Gronkowski, whom Belichick this week called “one of our best players,’’ said negative stories and columns aren’t a source of motivation for him.
“No, it is what it is,’’ he said with a shrug. “We’ve got a big game Sunday, that’s all that matters. I’ve got to get ready, got to get prepared, and just focus on Sunday.’’
Jets coach Todd Bowles was frank when asked if he’s seen any dropoff in Gronkowski’s play this season.
“He’ll be a game-breaking talent until he retires,’’ Bowles said. “That’s the only time you don’t have to worry about him.’’