The Patriots' need for a healthy Rob Gronkowski back in the lineup was never more apparent than last Thursday. Tom Brady spent that evening watching passes ricochet off the hands of his receivers, leaving the QB visibly exasperated.
Brady may have his favorite target back soon, according to ESPN's Ed Werder, who reported that Gronkowski is "50-50" to play against the Buccaneers in Week 3. But would it make more sense for New England to make Gronkowski wait until Week 4?
That's something the Patriots' coaching staff surely will discuss in the coming days, with Gronkowski inching closer to a return. Gronkowski, who has 38 touchdown receptions in 43 career games, rejoined practice a couple of weeks ago following a difficult offseason dealing with an injury to his back and complications in his previously-injured wrist. While he was sitting out in Weeks 1 and 2, the Patriots also lost receiver Danny Amendola for the immediate future.
The Gronk- and Amendola-less Patriots passing attack almost completely stalled out during a 13-10 rain-soaked win over the Jets. Brady finished that game with just 185 yards passing, his lowest total since posting 198 in a 2011 loss to Pittsburgh. Brady targeted Amendola's replacement, Julian Edelman, 18 times -- almost half of the 37 passes Brady attempted.
The run game also struggled against the Jets' tough D, with Stevan Ridley being held to 40 yards on 16 carries.
Gronkowski, an outstanding blocker in addition to his pass-catching abilities, would bring some life to all facets of the New England offense. His return definitely ought to provide an emotional boost, too, given how scattered the last few months have been for the Patriots offense, on and off the field.
The question is: Do they need Gronk to get by an 0-2 Bucs team this Sunday? If not, then there's really no reason to roll the dice.
On deck after that meeting with Tampa Bay are trips to Atlanta and Cincinnati, a home game with New Orleans and a rematch with the Jets. The Buccaneers' defense will test Brady's offense, with or without Gronkowski -- it did so against Drew Brees in Week 2, limiting the Saints to 16 points. But the Patriots need Gronkowski far less Sunday than they will come December and January.
The dynamic of the Patriots' offense completely changes when Gronkowski is present. (The same went for Aaron Hernandez, before his unceremonious fall from grace.) Not only is Gronkowski a matchup nightmare and Brady's most trusted receiver, he graded out as the team's No. 2 run blocker last season on Pro Football Focus -- a testament to his all-around game.
Running Gronkowski back out there early, though, could limit his effectiveness and would put him at risk for further injury. The Patriots believe the issues with Gronkowski's fractured and then infected forearm are in the past, but he has had back issues on multiple occasions now, having missed an entire college season due to that nagging problem.
The Patriots do not need to rest Gronkowski until the playoffs or keep him inactive if he is 100 percent ready to go. But if there is any question at all about throwing him back on the field, New England would be wise to err on the side of caution. Ugly as it may be, this team is capable of surviving against Tampa Bay without its top tight end. And having a healthy Gronk when the calendar flips to 2014 would be preferable to seeing him play on Sunday.