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History tells us Rob Gronkowski's latest back injury likely won't be minor blip

Alex Reimer
October 22, 2018 - 10:06 am

Last month, Bill Belichick confidante Mike Lombardi was largely derided for his criticisms leveled at star tight end Rob Gronkowski. On The Ringer’s GM Street podcast, the former NFL executive, who worked with Belichick in Cleveland and New England, said Gronkowski looked slow through the first three weeks of the season.

“Gronk doesn’t have the same quickness that he once had,” Lombardi said. “The great combination of Gronk and Aaron Hernandez — Aaron Hernandez was quick, Gronk was quick and explosive. Gronk is more of a builder of speed now. People are playing for that, so none of those underneath routes really apply to Gronk. It’s got to be throws up the field. That limits what you do offensively and I think that’s the challenge for New England.”

Gronkowski was a steady contributor to the Patriots’ offense in the three weeks following Lombardi’s critiques, catching 13 passes for 216 yards in New England wins over Miami, Indianapolis and Kansas City. He reeled in two catches for 81 yards in the fourth quarter of the Patriots’ thrilling 43-40 win over the Chiefs last Sunday night, reestablishing his dominance over Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce, who was shutout in the second half.

But still, Gronk wasn’t the four-quarter force he had been through the first eight years of his career. Tom Brady, for example, didn’t really even look his way until the final period against the Chiefs. And even when Gronkowski did come down with those two massive receptions, he did look a little slower running down the field. He wasn’t moving at a glacial Josh Gordon pace, but it was apparent that Gronk was lacking some explosiveness. 

Lombardi may have been right after all.

Originally, Gronkowski’s ankle injury was blamed for this. He injured his ankle against the Dolphins in Week 4, and was questionable entering Week 5's matchup with the Colts. But over the weekend, we learned Gronk’s back has been bothering him, too. Gronkowski didn’t make the trip to Chicago with the team.

NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport reports the back injury isn’t a “long-term issue” for Gronk. But it’s hard to take that report at face value, given Gronkowski’s extensive history with back problems. He missed his junior season at Arizona due to back surgery, prompting him to drop to the second-round in the NFL Draft. Since then, Gronk has undergone eight additional operations, including two back procedures in 2013 and 2016. In both instances, Gronkowski was suffering from a herniated disk. 

History shows Gronk’s physical ailments don’t often go away quickly, especially when his back is part of the discussion. We are just three years removed from the weird public tag-of-war over the knee injury Gronkowski suffered against the Broncos, which led to the Patriots releasing an uncharacteristic joint statement with the Gronk family about the tight end’s status. 

With Gronkowski, it often isn’t just one injury, either. NFL Media’s Mike Giardi says a Patriots source told him this season “hasn’t been easy for (Gronk), physically.” That doesn’t sound like a player who has no long-term concerns, as Rapoport attests. 

In an interview with “Kirk & Callahan” last Friday, one day before the back news became public, ESPN’s Adam Schefter also commented on Gronkowski’s apparent lack of burst. “He just doesn’t look as fluid as he has in the past. It looks like he’s a little slower,” Schefter said. “I’m sure the injuries over time have taken their toll. They take their toll on every player, and I don’t think he’s any different.”

This is Gronkowski’s ninth season in the league, and frankly, it’s a small upset he’s lasted this long. Gronk may return as early as next Monday against the Bills, but using his first six games of the season as a guide, don’t expect him to be out there without limitations.