The New England Patriots got a boost on Thursday as tight end Rob Gronkowski practiced for the first time since suffering an ankle injury two weeks ago, but the team said it was too soon to say whether he would be fit for tomorrow’s Super Bowl.
The record-setting tight end, who arrived in Indianapolis wearing a supportive ankle boot this week, was on the field for the second half of New England’s nearly two-hour session, which was his first practice since suffering a high ankle injury on Jan. 22 in the AFC Championship Game.
“He did some things. He didn’t do everything,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “We’ll see how he is tomorrow. I think that will be the big key — how he responds to this today.”
Gronkowski, 22, set NFL records for a tight end with 1,327 yards receiving and 17 touchdowns this season and he is one of quarterback Tom Brady’s favorite targets.
The Patriots reached the Super Bowl in part thanks to an innovative offensive strategy they might be forced to abandon if Gronkowski’s ankle injury keeps him out of the Super Bowl.
Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have made up a novel two-man tight end package for the Patriots which has proved to be very fruitful for New England’s passing game.
The role of a NFL tight end has evolved in recent years with the versatile players in that position expected to not only block and create openings, but to be a key receiver and runner themselves.
The Patriots duo are by no means the only representatives of a new breed who are bigger, faster and more skilled than most of their predecessors — Tony Gonzalez (Atlanta) blazed the trail among the current crop, while Antonio Gates (San Diego) and Jimmy Graham (New Orleans) were also effective as a new kind of offensive weapon.
However, the Patriots have been unique in using two such players in tandem and the results speak for themselves as defenses found themselves in a quandary over how best to respond.
In addition to Gronkowski’s records this season, Hernandez ranked among the top five at the position in yards, receptions and scores.
Those numbers go some way to explaining why there has been so much anxiety over the prospect that Gronkowski’s injury could keep him out of the Super Bowl.
Barring the loss of quarterback Tom Brady, there could be no bigger loss to the Patriots offense than Gronkowski.
The mantra of NFL players and coaches is that it is all about the team and that no one is irreplaceable, but Hernandez, while repeating that official line, acknowledged how much of a loss Gronkowski would be.
“Obviously our team would take a toll on him not playing, but we have a lot of great players on this team and that’s the reason we are here today,” he told reporters on Thursday.
“Yeah, it would take away a huge weapon and a big part of this game, but I feel like we have so many players on this team that everyone is smart enough and knows that it would be time to step up and carry that rifle on their shoulder,” he said.
Hernandez believes Gronkowski will be fit to play and the player himself said he will make the final call while continuing to talk of his status being “day-to-day.”
However, if he does not play or is only available in a limited role against the New York Giants the Patriots will be forced to shuffle their pack.
Offensive tackle Nate Solder could take some of Gronkowski’s blocking duties, but Brady might find himself having to use wideout options more often, with increased use of a three wide receiver set.