In 2011, Rob Gronkowski established himself as one of, if not the, most dominant single offensive force in professional football. He was impossible to defend in the passing game, and an impenetrable wall as a blocker in the run game. When all was said in done, there was little questioning that the young Gronkowski had the best year in the history of the tight end position. He had 17 receiving touchdowns (good for most in the league) and 1,327 yards through the air (tops at the position for the season). He became the first tight end to ever lead the league in receiving touchdowns.
Brady to Gronkowski was too easy, and each time they connected Patriots fans collectively saw the bright future of the team's franchise at play. It seemed to good to be true that the big guy with back problems from Arizona was going to be the best Patriot's draft pick since the guy who was throwing him the ball.
|Gronkowski was unstoppable in 2011|
But Gronk suffered a major setback when he broke his ankle in the AFC Championship game against the Ravens. He was hobbled for the team's super bowl loss to the Giants. The offense stalled in that game, and Gronkowski's presence was clearly missed.
And it was missed against the Ravens this past post-season, as the typically prolific offense was completely stagnated at the hands of the tough Baltimore D. Once again, Gronk was on the sideline with an twice-broken forearm. That arm has since been operated on four, count it four, times, and another back surgery is now looming.
And now Patriots fans are forced to seriously considering this disturbing question that is now legitimized by frequent surgeries and health concerns: Are Rob Gronkowski's best days behind him?
Christopher Price of WEEI.com wrote a piece on May 17th examining this difficult question and raised some troubling points about Gronk's long history of injuries and durability issues. Ultimately, he suggested that Gronk's career could play out in a similar fashion to that of once-elite, now mediocre Antonio Gates.
This is not to suggest he’s going to drop off the map like a post-30 running back. Instead, maybe it’s just time to readjust our expectations. Ultimately, Gronkowski may follow the same career arc as someone like Antonio Gates. At 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, he’s another big, physical guy who came of age in the passing era with the help of an elite quarterback in Drew Brees. Gates had a six-year stretch (2004 to 2009) where he finished with at least 70 catches in five of those seasons, and was a First-Team All-Pro from 2004 through 2006. But beginning in 2008, he was beset by a series of injuries that reduced his effectiveness. While he hasn’t been the same presence in the passing game the last few seasons because of age and injury, he’s still managed 163 catches the last three seasons. Not elite, but not bad.
Gronk has a style of play that one could definitely argue increases the likelihood of injury. But he is never going to stop playing that way. It is all he knows and it is what makes him great. But when you combine this with the fact that he plays tight end, a position where the player takes the punishment of both a wide receiver and a lineman, injuries seem bound to happen. And they are happening, in troubling frequency.
But I disagree with the assertion that Gronk's days as the best tight end in the NFL are over. Will he ever have a season as statistically eye-popping as 2011? Probably not. But much of that can be attributed to the fact that after that season, Gronk was faced with constant double coverages and paired against the opponent's best defensive players. In his second year, he still had the luxury of people not knowing just how good he was.
And do I think Gronk will be at 100% for the regular season, or even at any point during the regular season? Honestly, I don't. And I also don't think he should be rushed back. We saw what happened last year when he was brought back prematurely to play against the Texans. Didn't end well. Jerry Thornton of Barstool Sports raised some excellent points on this issue in a piece he wrote the other day:
The speculation is that Gronk could be ready to start the season, but in all likelihood might miss the first few games or, worst case scenario, start the year on the PUP list. Is that really cause for panic in the streets? Hardly. The last I looked the Pats were still the AFC East. With or without Gronk playing all 16, the division is still theirs for the taking. We don’t need him in September; we need him in January. Better to get the surgery done in June and get him ready for crunch time since a playoff spot is pretty much a fait accompli. And besides, this proves that no one prepares for contingencies like the Patriots. When they stole Jake Ballard from the Giants, there were some people actually questioning why they’d bother, since they didn’t “need” him. Well how’s that move looking now? Typical Belichick. Planning for now and for the future. And being ready for all possibilities.
I wholeheartedly agree with Thorton here. The Patriots realistically should coast to another AFC East title this year, and we don't really need Gronk to do that. But it's been proven in two cases now that we cannot win the big ones without him. So why not rest him as long as possible?
Are Gronk's best days behind him? I don't think so, but I think the chances that they are increase if he is brought back too early from some serious injuries. What do you guys think? Vote in the poll below.
Get well soon Gronk.