Does Rob Gronkowski Deserve the “Injury-Prone” Label?

Rob Gronkowski

Oct 21, 2012; Foxboro, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) on the side line during the fourth quarter against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium. The New England Patriots won 29-26. Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Has Rob Gronkowski earned the “injury-prone” label? It certainly hasn’t harmed his effectiveness in his first three seasons in the league; we haven’t seen a tight end take the league by storm this much since, arguably, Mike Ditka in the ’60s. His combination of size, strength, and athleticism really hasn’t ever been matched, and his pairing with Aaron Hernandez has led the NFL to become two-tight-end crazy – with Gronk able to go between mauling blocker and receiving dynamo at will, teams have been scrambling to try to catch up with the mismatches present all over the Patriots offense.

The only thing that seems to have been able to slow Gronkowski down has been injuries, and news that, in addition to the fourth surgery on his left forearm, he may require surgery to repair a disc in his back, has raised alarm bells throughout Patriots nation – is he breaking down?  The back surgery has been described as “minor”, so it wouldn’t mean he’d miss any additional time, and indeed, he might be ready for week one of the season. Still, it’s very rarely a good thing to have multiple surgeries on multiple body parts in one off season.

C.D. Carter broke down what these surgeries mean for Gronkowksi’s fantasy football future, something you should definitely look at if you’re worried about Gronkowski’s short-term prospects. It’s easy to forget that Gronkowski put up his great numbers last season in only 11 games, so even if he does miss a little time at the beginning of the season, you should definitely grab him. No, I’m more concerned about his long-term prognosis.

Remember, Gronkowski came out of Arizona with injury questions at the time – that’s why he slipped to the second round in the 2010 draft. He missed all of 2009 with a back injury – doctors had to shave off part of a disc that was sticking out and onto his spinal cord, and there were concerns about his long-term durability then. Now, this new back injury is apparently not related to the injury suffered in college, but that almost makes it worse – now he has two unrelated spots in his back that have required surgery to repair.  They’ll match well with the two unrelated forearm breaks he suffered last season, and the surgery he needed after the 2011 season to repair an injured ankle.

All of these injuries are, by themselves, not big red flags – for young players, the recovery time from injuries like those are usually fairly short, and none of them are career-threatening. However, it has to concern Patriots fans that they keep piling up like this – injuries were the one thing that seemed capable of derailing Gronkowski’s career when they drafted him, and perhaps poor health is coming back to bite him now. The cumulative effects of these injuries have to start taking their toll sooner or later.

Remember – playing in the NFL is often described as like being in a car-wreck, and Gronkowski is a very physical player – he doesn’t avoid contact so much as try to shrug it off. These have to have an impact on his long-term ability to play – unless he drastically changes his style, which would likely reduce his skill set, Gronkowski’s always going to be in danger of reinjuring himself. Health is a weird skill in NFL circles, and it’s not one you can train – some players go their entire careers and seem to walk away without a scratch, and others seem to get injured just from thinking about contact. If this back pain issue that he’s suffering from really turns out to be chronic, this could alter the entire scope of Gronkowski’s career.

Now, all of this doesn’t mean he’ll get injured in 2013, of course. Every indicator seems to point to him being ready for week one, as mentioned earlier. And, of course, maybe this is just a huge run of bad luck more than any deeper susceptibility for injuries – maybe it isn’t that Gronkowski is more likely to be hurt on any given play as much as it is a series of flukes, or even over-compensating from the first forearm break leading to poor form and the rest of his injury concerns. In that case, once he heals up from these last surgeries, he would be expected to pop back into full form with no significant increase in injury risk from that point on. After all, for all the talk pre-draft about his injury history, and all the talk now about the six surgeries in less than twelve months, we have to remember he played in every single game in both 2010 and 2011 – there were no signs of these injury concerns then. Some of this, then, is simply a result of it being over a hundred days before the start of the NFL season, so the lens gets focused tighter on anything even coming close to news. If Gronkowski gets off to another strong start, all of this injury-prone talk will be forgotten very quickly.

Until, that is, the next time he suffers an injury.

After weighing both sides of the issue, I think Gronkowski will recover fine from these injuries, but looking over his entire history, I’ll be cringing every time he takes a big blow, because of his history. We keep getting assured of his health – no, he doesn’t have spinal stenosis, no, his second forearm break was not related to the first one, and no, the two back injuries are unrelated. At a certain point, though, these excuses pile up, and you have to just look at the fact that he’s gone under the knife five times since November, seven times in his short NFL career, and ping his health issues back onto your mental radar. That’s a lot of stress to put on a body, even one as chiseled and trained as Gronkowski’s. Only time will tell if Gronkowski’s career will continue on the meteoric arc it’s taken so far but, be it due just to the needs of the 24/7 news cycle or an actual legitimate concern, the eyes of everyone in Boston will rest on the injury report for the foreseeable future.

Bryan Knowles is a writer and hopelessly devoted sports nut, with strong opinions that are subject to revision near-daily. A graduate of UC Davis and San Jose State University, Bryan spends his days teaching high school English and his nights watching far too many sporting events.