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Five thoughts on past, present and future of Rob Gronkowski

05.17.13 at 11:07 pm ET

In the wake of the news that Rob Gronkowski could be going under the knife for a back issue — in addition to his monthly series of offseason surgeries on his left forearm — here are five thoughts about what that means for him and the team, and what sort of future he might have in the NFL.

1. Back in late February, I talked with noted sports injury expert Will Carroll about the Patriots, and specifically Gronkowski’€™s health situation. It’€™s important to remember this was at the start of the offseason — before the multiple offseason arm surgeries and reported need for back surgery. (Back to a simpler time, when it was just his forearm, ankle and a disk problem in his back that were an issue.) But what he said was really interesting. He talked about how this was just part of who Gronkowski is. (Click here to listen to the entire podcast.)

‘€œI don’€™t think at some point when you take a look at players, the injury-prone tag is thrown out a little too easily. But with a player like Gronkowski who has had multiple problems … 20 years from now, we’€™re probably going to take a little swab of their cheek at the combine and say, ‘€˜Huh, well, looks like he just can’€™t handle this. He’€™s going to end up with these kinds of injuries. We don’€™t have that now — we have to do it in retrospect. To me, when we see these multiple system failures, it is something that [Dr. James Andrews] calls a ‘€˜tissue issue.’€™ There’€™s probably some genetic issue to it. Some things can hold up better than others. Certainly, he’€™s talented. Certainly, he’€™s really, really talented. But I do think he’€™s going to have to deal with these injuries throughout his career. And I don’€™t think it’€™s going to be a very long one. He could have seven, eight really, good, productive years that will really help the Patriots. But they’€™re going to have to deal with these sorts of injuries all along that time frame.’€

How much of that is in how he plays?

‘€œI think that’€™s part of it. Maybe he could adjust. I don’€™t think he adjusts much about his life. And that’€™s OK. He’€™s very good at what he does, especially with Aaron Hernandez there. They make a very good pair, and Tom Brady knows how to use the two of them and they fit very well into that offense. I’€™m not sure he needs to. I’€™m not even sure it would make that much difference. None of these things are him wearing down. None of these things are fatigued-based injuries. These are just … some of them are football injuries, and some of them are … I just don’€™t think his body holds up as well as some others. And again, that’€™s no fault of his own. I suppose we could take a look at his parents a little bit. But there’€™s not much you can do with that. You have to take him for who he is, both on and off the field.’€

2. Gronkowski has been dogged by injury questions all he way back to college, where he had real back problems that caused him to sit out a season while at Arizona, and that was a big reason the Patriots were able to find him in the second round in 2010. It’€™s absolutely absurd in retrospect, but he went 42nd overall — selected after guys like Tim Tebow, Dez Bryant and Jermaine Gresham — because in large part because teams were scared away by a terrifying injury history.

However, It’€™s important to remember that this issue is reportedly different than the problem he suffered in college. That was a spine issue (there was one report that he suffered from spinal stenosis, one that was roundly rejected by his agent Drew Rosenhaus), while this is a disk issue. When you talk to people around the league, there’€™s a distinct good news/bad news element to this: it’€™s good because it’€™s a sign that the spinal issue is not recurring, but it’€™s bad that it’€™s another area of the back he has to worry about going forward.

(In the wake of Friday’€™s news, it’€™s also worth mentioning that he’€™s becoming a walking ad for WebMD. In the last five years, it’€™s been two different back issues, multiple breaks of the left forearm and an ankle injury that limited his effectiveness in Super Bowl XLVI.)

3. The number of surgeries and injuries isn’€™t a knock on Gronkowski’€™s durability. Frankly, I’€™m not sure anybody, even someone his size, is equipped to play a minimum of 16 games a year while taking that level of punishment. (Of course, the off-field lifestyle doesn’€™t exactly help out, but that’€™s a column for another day.) To watch him after a game late in the season is to witness a 6-foot-6, 265-pound bruise. He takes terrific physical punishment. And it’€™s important to remember that pass catching is only one-half of his game: Gronkowski is one of the best blocking tight ends in the league — last season, Pro Football Focus graded him as the fourth-best run-blocking tight end in the NFL — and the level of punishment he endures while helping Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder hold back the likes of Cameron Wake and Von Miller also takes its toll.

4. While the timetable for Gronkowski’€™s return right now is unclear — that should start to come into clearer focus after next week when the arm and back surgeries are scheduled to take place, at least right now — the Patriots do have some depth at the tight end spot they can lean on. As we wrote here, expect the 6-foot-6, 275-pound Jake Ballard to see some reps in his spot. When it comes to playing style, physical presence and overall skill set, Ballard is the closest you’€™re going to get, at least on the current roster. (Undrafted out of Ohio State in 2010, but turned himself into an effective downfield threat in 2011 with the Giants, when he finished with 38 receptions for 604 yards and four touchdowns.) Like the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski, Ballard is more of a physical type who can also offer you some ability as a pass catcher and blocker. He is not Gronkowski, but the sort of short-term presence who can get you over for a few weeks until Gronkowski is back.

5. With all this in mind — even at the ripe old age of 24 — this might be the new normal when it comes to Gronkowski: brief episodes of real brilliance where we see him move the position forward with a ridiculous play like this or this, intercut with questions about his health and time spent on the shelf because of a physical issue. As Carroll indicated, his playing style and his previous injury history lead you to believe that he won’€™t have a long career. Even if he didn’€™t have the sort of previous injury problems, history tells us that big physical tight ends do not have the same sort of playing career that the more finesse-style pass catchers (Tony Gonzalez, Kellen Winslow) tend to have.

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.

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