Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFL [Print without images]

Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Rob Gronkowski's caution justified

By Ashley Fox
ESPN.com

It is impossible to blame Rob Gronkowski.

The story of Gronkowski's left forearm goes like this: Break, surgery, break, surgery, infection, surgery, surgery. That's four surgeries in seven months to correct an injury that initially occurred Nov. 18, 2012.

Gronkowski is allowed to be cautious. He is allowed to be skeptical. He is allowed to distrust his employer, the New England Patriots, including owner Robert Kraft, president Jonathan Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and team doctor Thomas Gill.

Rob Gronkowski
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has been participating in practice and could make his season debut this week.

And clearly, Gronkowski no longer fully trusts the Patriots to act in his best interest. After everything the talented tight end has been through, who can blame him?

Not me.

Gronkowski is doing what the Patriots did not late last year, when they wrapped up his surgically repaired forearm after a five-game hiatus and ran him back onto the playing field. He has not played a game yet this season because he is protecting himself. He is protecting his body. He is protecting his career.

That is why renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews reportedly now will decide when Gronkowski is healthy enough to play again. Not the Patriots. Not Gronkowski. The decision about when Gronkowski will return -- this week against New Orleans, next week or next month -- is out of New England's hands.

Andrews is an independent and theoretically neutral observer with no agenda and no financial ties to the Patriots. He doesn't care that the Patriots have been dreadful in the red zone or that Tom Brady has a bunch of unproven receivers or that New England scored a mere six points against Cincinnati last week.

Andrews did not perform any of the surgeries on Gronkowski's forearm or the subsequent one on his back, but he is a highly respected authority on injuries to professional athletes. He has a lofty reputation to uphold. He will want to make the right decision for Gronkowski and for the Patriots.

And Gronkowski will abide by it and trust it, and that is the key.

A chasm has developed between the player and the club, and it must be repaired if Gronkowski is to be of any value to the Patriots. Trust is vital in the National Football League. Players must trust their teammates, coaches and trainers. Without trust, there is no success.

Even with an offense that lacks experienced playmakers, the Patriots still have high expectations for this season. To have any hope of reaching those expectations, raising their scoring average and improving their passing game, they need Gronkowski in the fold, producing, engaged and effective. And they need him to not play how he did in the season finale last year against Miami.

That was Gronkowski's first game back after he initially broke his arm. With his left arm heavily bandaged up to his elbow, Gronkowski was a shell of himself. On one play, he let Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake blow around his left side in pursuit of Brady. On another, he used his right arm in a futile attempt to slow defensive tackle Jared Odrick.

Gronkowski was ineffective in the passing game. When he ran routes, he didn't pump his left arm but often kept it pinned to his side. He awkwardly failed to catch a pass from Brady that was high but normally would've been in Gronkowski's wheelhouse. He scored a touchdown on a play where he ran down the seam unimpeded by a defender, but it was one of only two passes he caught that day.

In the playoffs two weeks later against Houston, Gronkowski broke his forearm again, and the cycle started anew.

When this season started, the Patriots felt like Gronkowski would be ready to go sooner rather than later. They could have put him on the physically unable to perform list, which would have freed a roster spot but required Gronkowski to miss the first six weeks of games and practices. The Patriots opted to keep Gronkowski on the active roster.

If Gronkowski plays this week, that decision will be justified. On Wednesday, when asked repeatedly about Gronkowski's availability for the Saints game, Belichick would say only that Gronkowski is "day to day."

Two weeks ago before New England played Atlanta, Jonathan Kraft told Boston radio station 98.5 The Sports Hub that there was "absolutely no disagreement between the team and Rob Gronkowski."

Speaking generally about how the team deals with players coming back from injury, Kraft said: "With any player, they have to feel ready to step on the field. It's not a place to be if you don't feel you belong there."

Clearly, for whatever reason, Gronkowski hasn't felt like he belonged on the field. Maybe Sunday he will. It is physical, yes, but there is a psychological component to this, too. How could there not be, after the injuries and the surgeries and all of the questions?

Given everything he has been through, Gronkowski is allowed as much time as he needs to once again fully trust his body and his team.