Two up, one down(ish) for the health of the biggest pieces of the Patriots’ offense:
Gronk had the performance we were all waiting for against Miami. Is he back to the same superhuman form we’re used to? No. But he’s moving better and, even at his current level of limitation, I’d argue he’s among the best in the league.
What I saw from Gronk in Sunday’s game: He looks physically more comfortable. Popping up after plays, not wincing, jogging off the field. He is building speed better — his release off the line isn’t as quick as it has been in the past, but I saw glimpses of it. He is able to accelerate into his routes and beat linebacker coverage much better than just a few weeks ago. Perhaps more importantly, Brady was able to give him some time to get open against Miami. We’ll see if that changes against better defenses.
What I expect going forward: Gronk took some massive hits last weekend, including this one to the spine.
Can you see why I think it’s hard to expect his back (or ankle) injury to get better as the season grinds on? There’s little time for rest at this point. His current level of discomfort is probably the best he can expect to feel this season. I am, however, optimistic that other parts of his game will improve. Gronk’s conditioning, for example, can only get better. During his first game back after a 27-day absence, Gronk was absolutely guzzling oxygen on the sidelines in between series. This isn’t a surprise and doesn’t mean he didn’t work hard while he was recovering. Nothing can replicate NFL play when it comes to game shape. Gronk looked much less winded against Miami and his stamina will only continue to grow.
That brings me to chemistry. You wouldn’t expect that Gronk and Brady would have any issues with their on-field relationship after a few weeks apart, but when athletes are away from the team due to injury it definitely takes time to re-establish themselves, especially in an ever-evolving offense. Both timing and communication looked better against Miami than Minnesota.
I am cautiously optimistic that Gronkowski can continue to perform at a high level the rest of the season and rev things up even further for the postseason. As for the future, I would not be surprised if this is the final NFL season for the all-universe tight end. I don’t enjoy watching many athletes play more than I enjoy watching Rob Gronkowski, so if he chooses to retire at the end of this season it will be a sad day for me. I just hope he keeps some in the tank so he can teach his (possible future) children and nieces and nephews to be as crazy as he and his brothers were when they were young.
Another positive development for the offense - Julian Edelman was moving much better against Miami than I have seen him look in months. Edelman had a fifth metatarsal fracture in his left foot in 2015 that required a second surgery to heal. This is the type of injury that can become a chronic problem and has a higher chance of occurring in the opposite foot. Edelman has appeared on the team’s injury report as “ankle,” “heel,” and most recently “foot.” Leading into last weekend, No. 11 has repeatedly pulled up after routes grabbing his foot and intermittently limped off of the field. I did not see any of that against Miami. Edelman is a tough son of a gun and he has managed to remain productive despite clearly dealing with a foot injury. The fact that he appeared more physically comfortable in Miami is a good sign that things are improving for Brady’s most reliable receiver.
Which brings me to the quarterback, who found himself sitting on the turf seemingly because of knee pain. Tom Brady has been on the Patriots’ injury report with a knee issue since November 21st, coming out of the team's bye week. Two weeks earlier, against Tennessee, the Patriots’ quarterback reportedly injured his knee on a double pass play. There was no contact to Brady on that play, though he did step somewhat awkwardly with his left leg. There was another play in the Tennessee game where Brady was hit in the left knee. As you can see, it was a close call for an aging quarterback with a history of complicated ACL reconstruction.
Brady went on to be listed as “questionable” in the Patriots’ Week 12 matchup with the Jets, but ultimately played. And on Sunday, after a touchdown pass to Gronkowski, Brady sat down on the field grabbing his left knee, visibly uncomfortable. He had difficulty getting to his feet and limped a few steps before jogging to trainers on the sideline.
Brady says that it’s nothing, that his brace just “grabbed" him the wrong way. In spite of his production falling substantially after the issue with the brace, Brady has “zero” concerns about his knee. As usual, the Patriots are doing a great job of keeping the details of the injury under wraps.
Sorry everyone, I don’t know exactly what’s bothering the Patriots’ quarterback. There is no clear injury video and aside from the isolated “brace” incident he never appears to be in pain. I’ve seen video over the years that suggests to me that his reconstructed left knee is not 100 percent, but that’s something that he has been able to play through quite successfully since his surgery in 2008. We saw a bruised right knee on the sidelines of the Jets game. At times over the past two weeks, Brady appears to avoid stepping into his throws as much as he usually does. Other times, he seems way more wary of the rush, getting rid of the ball more quickly than he normally would. That tells me he might be dealing with something that is affecting his play.
This is something to watch, but nothing to panic about. It may be nothing. More likely, it could be something that is limiting him right now, but he’ll find a way to play through — just like the time he nearly got his thumb ripped off a few days before the AFC championship game and still delivered an outstanding performance. With no time to take his foot off the gas, Brady’s knee injury could be a challenge to manage as we head towards the playoffs.
Dr. Jessica Flynn is a sports medicine physician at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, MA. She writes about injuries in professional sports on her blog, DocFlynn.com. You can follow her on Twitter @jessdeede.