FOXBOROUGH, Mass — To play or not to play?
Again, that is the question facing tight end Rob Gronkowski and the New England Patriots. The two-time Pro Bowl selection has yet to play this season, and the Patriots’ once-prolific offense has become mortal, averaging a mere 19 points per game.
But reports this week from ESPN and Pro Football Talk indicate Gronkowski might return against the New Orleans Saints at 4:25 p.m. Sunday at Gillette Stadium. Gronkowski, who had offseason surgeries for his forearm and back, only needs medical clearance from Dr. James Andrews according to the reports.
The Patriots, of course, won’t say one way or another.
Why would they? Why would Coach Bill Belichick give his next opponent — in this case a 5-0 powerhouse that features both a top offense and defense — any advance notice?
He won’t, of course.
But it’s obvious after five weeks of “How’s Gronk coming along?” and “Is he ready to play this week?” that Belichick and the Pats are quite tired of the topic.
Three times in his Wednesday morning press conference, Belichick simply answered, “He’s day to day,” when asked about Gronkowski.
Even Tom Brady, whose patience this year is being thinned by the inconsistency of his rookie wide receivers, seemed to be weary of questions about Gronkowski.
“Whenever that happens, who knows,” he said of Gronkowski’s return. ” You know, I feel like I’ve kind of talked about it a lot these last five weeks. So if he’s there, he’s there. If he’s not, we’re going to try to win anyway.”
The Patriots have kept Gronkowski on the active roster all season, allowing him to practice with the offense rather than simply rehabilitate with the trainers. According to several players, that has allowed them all to see just how special he can be.
“Gronk is a beast,” said Aaron Dobson, a rookie wide receiver. “I can’t wait to see him, whenever he gets back. I can’t wait to see him out there on the field and playing.”
Brady was asked if Gronkowski still looked the same.
“He’s been a great player for us since he’s been here,” said Brady. “He’s always looked the same to me. He’s Gronk. That’s what he is. He comes in every day, he works hard, brings a lot of excitement, a lot of energy to the team. He’s a great player.”
And according to Coach Sean Payton, the Saints are preparing for Gronkowski.
“I think you take the approach that he’s going to play,” said Payton. “And then you understand if he doesn’t, how that affects your game plan. I don’t think you ever go in with two different (game) plans, but you’re certainly mindful of a player of his ability.”
What would Gronkowski’s return mean to the Patriots?
Well, he would immediately give defenses something else to think about, even if he’s not 100 percent.
Gronkowski has been a game-changer in his three seasons.
At 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, he’s capable of making the tough catch or tough block, capable of stretching the defense down the middle of the field and opening up the outside for everyone else.
“He’s versatile,” said Kyle Arrington, the Patriots’ veteran cornerback. “He can catch. He can block, stretch the defense. He’s faster than you think. Big catch radius. He’s quite the talent.”
He’s scored 38 touchdowns in three seasons and holds the single-season record for receiving yards (1,327) by a tight end. The Patriots have obviously missed that. But it would be unrealistic to expect him to immediately step in and become that unstoppable force.
Gronkowski, who didn’t talk to the media Wednesday as he has the last three weeks, has said as much in recent interviews.
“We’ll see,” said Brady when asked if Gronkowski will help. “I’m just kind of waiting like everyone else. Whenever it is, it is. I mean, we’re 4-1, we won four games without him. If he’s not here this week, we’ve got to try to go 5-1 anyway. Hopefully when he does get out there we can be more productive.”
The Patriots need him, but they need more.
They need the offensive line to block like it’s capable of doing; they need their running backs to get tough yards and hold the ball; they need their rookie receivers to play like veterans; they need Brady to throw the ball better.
“Our job is to go out there and score,” said Brady. “So we’re not doing a great job at that. Our execution has to be a lot better. That’s what we’re working on. We’re trying to improve in all areas. It’s frustrating when we don’t score so we’re going to try to do better this weekend.”
With or without Gronkowski.
Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: