Rob Gronkowski cleared for return

Updated: October 18, 2013, 4:45 PM ET
ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has been cleared medically to make his long-anticipated season debut Sunday against the New York Jets, his agent said Friday morning.

"Rob Gronkowski has now been cleared by all his doctors to play Sunday in the Jets game," agent Drew Rosenhaus said in a text to multiple media outlets.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaRob Gronkowski has missed the first six games of the season after multiple surgeries on his forearm and a back procedure.

It was uncertain what the immediate plans were for Gronkowski in the wake of the news, but the Patriots officially listed him as questionable in Friday afternoon's injury report. Coach Bill Belichick wouldn't confirm Gronkowski's status Friday morning, saying only that the team's injuries would be included on the injury report.

The questionable designation means Gronkowski has a 50 percent chance of playing Sunday.

Gronkowski has missed the first six games of the season recovering from multiple surgeries on his forearm and a back procedure. The determination on when he would be cleared was to be decided by the team, the player, Dr. Jesse Jupiter and Dr. James Andrews, the renowned orthopedic surgeon who was independently consulting with Gronkowski. Jupiter performed the last of the four surgeries on Gronkowski's forearm.

Although Gronkowski has yet to play in a game, he has taken part in every Patriots practice, each time on a limited basis.

The timetable for his return has been the subject of controversy the past few weeks. Members of the tight end's inner circle have wanted to ensure that he is fully healthy before he returns, while some of those who have watched him in recent practices -- during which Gronkowski has even been tackled -- don't understand why he has yet to play in a game, sources previously told ESPN's Ed Werder.

Gronkowski's continued absence from the Patriots' lineup has also escalated tension among teammates who have begun to question why he's not playing, even raising "curiosity and resentment," multiple sources said last weekend.

The medical clearance makes it more likely Gronkowski will play Sunday but does not guarantee it. Last weekend, Patriots president Jonathan Kraft explained that in addition to being OK'd by a doctor, a player has to decide whether he is ready.

"If a player is going to come back, he has to be medically cleared and he personally has to be ready to get back on the field," Kraft told Boston radio station 98.5 The Sports Hub. "Those are the two things that need to happen. Neither one should be diminished.

"Sometimes you're a player and you want to go out there and play, and for their own good, you need to be held back. Sometimes you have players who are cleared medically and they're not just ready psychologically to get back on the field. As we talked about, you shouldn't step on an NFL field unless you are. Either of those are equally fine [orders] and metrics."

Asked Thursday if he had anything new to add about his status, Gronkowski said, "No, nothing."

"I'm just improving every week, that's all, really," he said. "I mean, like I said, nothing's changed, man, and nothing has changed the whole time. And just the one thing that has changed actually is that I'm improving every week and it's going good."

Still, the team's top tight end is eagerly anticipating his season debut.

"It's going to be a great feeling, obviously," Gronkowski said recently of his eventual return. "[I've] just been working hard toward that goal and working hard every day to achieve that. It's going to be exciting, and when it happens, it's going to be awesome."

In a promotional interview that hit YouTube shortly after the agent's announcement, Gronkowski described his rehab process and eagerness to return to the field.

"It's not just the arm; it's the back, too," Gronkowski says in the video, which promotes a nutritional drink. "You've got to rehab both, and both is a process of weeks. It's every single day for about eight weeks, or the rest of my life I'll be doing physical therapy."

In the video, Gronkowski is shown lifting weights and performing running drills. It is not clear when the video was produced.

"You might just think that we just show up and play on Sunday," Gronkowski says. "But there's so much behind the scenes parts of it that go on in order to get back on the field. It's literally rehab, rehab, practice, running, conditioning, strengthening all the muscles, strengthening my core muscles. And it's not just my back muscles and my arm muscles; it's my whole body."

Gronkowski concludes by saying he's "progressing every week" and that being sidelined has left him restless.

"I had it taken away from me in college, I had it taken away from me at the end of last year, and now I had it taken away from me at the beginning of the year, the game of football," he says. "It's going to be a great feeling to run back out there through that tunnel and get back on that field."

On Wednesday, quarterback Tom Brady said he's not riding the emotional roller coaster attached to speculating on Gronkowski's return date.

"We've kind of talked about it a lot the last five weeks," Brady said. "If he's there, he's there. If he's not, he's not. We're going to try to go win anyway."

Even if Gronkowski is limited in his return, and one figures he won't play every snap as he normally would when healthy, he could certainly be on the field for every red zone snap. It's an area where the Patriots have traditionally been strong, but 2013 has been a struggle.

In 22 trips inside the opponent's 20-yard line, the Patriots have converted just nine touchdowns. In terms of touchdown percentage, they rank 30th in the NFL.

In 2012, the Patriots ranked first in the NFL in touchdown percentage inside the red zone -- 49 touchdowns in 70 trips -- thanks in large part to Gronkowski, who has 28 touchdown receptions over the past two seasons.

While the offense could have Gronkowski back, it will be without receiver Danny Amendola, who left last week's game due to a concussion and missed practice each day this week. It will be the fourth missed game for Amendola this season, as he also sat out three weeks due to a groin injury earlier this season.

In his absence, the Patriots have relied on veteran Julian Edelman, a trio of rookie pass catchers and recently signed Austin Collie, the former Indianapolis Colts receiver.

The Patriots are also likely to be without their best defensive player still on the active roster. Cornerback Aqib Talib, who played a pivotal role in holding Saints tight end Jimmy Graham without a catch last week, is doubtful to play due to a hip injury suffered in Week 6.

Talib returned to practice Friday, though he was noticeably impacted by the injury.

Already forced to play without two defensive captains, with nose tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo on injured reserve, the Patriots also will be without veteran defensive tackle Tommy Kelly (knee). He and running back Leon Washington (ankle) will miss their second straight games.

The Patriots listed eight players as questionable for Sunday, including special teams captain Matthew Slater (wrist) and starting right guard Dan Connolly (concussion).

Information from ESPNBoston.com's Field Yates, Mike Reiss and ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter was used in this report.

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