Patriots

Patriots

FOXBORO – Rob Gronkowski re-emerged on Thursday to take part in practice. And the gears of the “What does it meeeeaannnn?!?!?!” train began to grind.
 
Here’s a sampling of the Gronkulation that ensued during the afternoon.
 
Is Gronk almost ready to play?
 
Is Gronk merely being trotted out as a show pony to create the impression he might play and thus create extra prep for the Texans?
 
Is Gronk simply at the next step in his recovery from a bruised knee, trotting around at practice and seeing how the leg responds?
 
How does Gronk Inc., feel about Gronk practicing?
 
Did the Patriots make Gronk practice in order to parade him before the media and apply pressure to Gronk Inc. so that if Gronk doesn’t play on Sunday he looks bad? (I can’t take credit for being the dolt that came up with this speculation. That credit goes to Tony Massarotti.)
 
Was that really Gronk or was it Dolph Lundgren?
 
Like it or not, this is the reality with Gronk. He is a special case on a team that doesn’t usually have much tolerance for special cases. He is a player whose ability, looks, personality and nickname invite celebrity-level attention.
 
The Patriots came up with the idea to put out a release on Gronk’s status last week because of rampant speculation as to what Gronk’s injury was and when he’d be back. They went the extra mile of getting the Gronkowski family stamp of approval on it in hopes of showing there was a unified front. The Gronkowskis don’t want him rushed back on the field under any circumstances. The Patriots don’t either.
 
That’s not to say that there won’t be differences of opinion on when Gronk is truly ready.
 
In my opinion, Gronk threw a purpose pitch when he said he won’t return until he’s 100 percent. That video of his coupled with the tweet from ESPN oracle Adam Schefter which said Gronk would be down for “multiple weeks” and that the issue would be one of “pain tolerance” showed clearly that Gronk and his handlers would have an active role in deciding when he was ready. Clearance from the medical staff to play football is all well and good. But only the player can know when he’s 100 percent and pain free which, if we go by what Gronk said, will be the standard he applies.
 
As I said last week, the Gronkowski family isn’t just entitled to advocate for the kid, they are obligated to. This is a player who had a back injury in college that caused some teams to declare him undraftable. He blew an ankle in the AFC Championship in 2011 and tried to gut it out for the team in the Super Bowl. He broke his arm in 2012, got a plate inserted, hurried back and broke it again a month later then endured months of infections, cleanings and repairs. He had another back surgery. He came back from those and blew an ACL. He’s still only 26. He’s got enough Purple Hearts to not have to prove anything about his toughness or willingness to sacrifice his body.
 
And I truly believe the Patriots understand that.
 
To hear Bill Belichick over the past few years go on and on about the mental toughness and resilience Gronk’s exhibited in his training and rehabilitation is too understand it’s not lip service. I believe that, in the past few years, he’s articulated a deeper appreciation – unabashed gratitude – for the physical and mental sacrifices players make to play for him. I think Gronkowski is a big reason for that.
 
Belichick knows he has a player of historic ability on his team who also checks off all the boxes when it comes to on-field toughness and willingness to do what he’s asked. He doesn’t want to see Gronk inducted into the Hall of Fame like Gale Sayers was – with half-a-decade of outsized production before injuries intervened.
 
Still, Belichick’s job is to coach and win football games. There will be a point when Gronkowski is cleared by the Patriots medical staff and it will become a football decision as to put him back on the field.
 
I don’t think that point is upon us. I think Thursday had nothing to do with sending messages to the Texans, the Gronkowskis or the world at large. It was merely seeing how Gronkowski responded to the next step in getting back on the field.
 
When that point comes, Belichick – despite understanding the uniqueness of Gronk’s story – will do his job.
 
“I just try to do what’s best for the team, that’s all,” Belichick said last Friday when asked a question about team-building. “I’m not trying to hurt anybody. I’m not trying to help any individual. I’m trying to help the team. My decisions are based on what’s best for the team. I made that clear to the team on numerous occasions in no uncertain terms. My decisions are easy. They’re what’s best for the team. That doesn’t mean everybody likes them. That doesn’t mean everybody thinks that they are the best for them individually or maybe even their unit, but in the end the overall decisions are made for the overall betterment of the team.
 
“Sure, there may be some that are right, I’m sure plenty are wrong,” he added. “Regardless of whatever we think about them, that’s the intent behind them. I don’t think that’s hard. I think that’s easy. Frankly, I think the harder thing is make the decision that’s good for an individual player which then really isn’t the best thing for the other 52 guys. So you’re picking one guy to say, ‘OK well we’ll do this for him so he’s happy,’ but in the end if you’ve even marginally affected the other 52, I think that’s really acting irresponsibly as a coach. I don’t believe in that. That’s the way I look at it.”
 
Is Gronk one whose health, mental comfort and 100 percentedness is of greater benefit to the team than his presence on the field at anything less than perfect? We’ll see.