Patriots history is not kind to players who face a potential decline, even stars, and Rob Gronkowski’s eighth surgery—the third he’s had on his back—leaves his future in New England in question

By Albert Breer
December 01, 2016

They traded Deion Branch at 27, despite having lost David Givens and carrying zero receiver depth to speak of. They dealt away Richard Seymour at 29, days before a season opener. They discarded Randy Moss in-season, with Tom Brady on his way to an MVP campaign. They said goodbye to Logan Mankins without any real answer at guard at the outset of a championship season.

That Foxboro clock is officially ticking on Rob Gronkowski.

Earlier in the season I mentioned on radio and TV in Boston that I thought the Pats would eventually do to Gronk what they do to everyone, and that’s cut ties with him earlier rather than later. It happened to Chandler Jones in March, because of a bottleneck of contract situations on defense. It happened to Jamie Collins in October, when the same financial traffic-jam caused Collins to waver from the program.

It will happen to Gronkowski.

Now, I emphasized then that this wasn’t happening tomorrow. And maybe it still won’t. But Thursday’s news—Gronkowski is set for surgery to repair a herniated disc Friday, and is expected miss two months—absolutely means the sand is coming out of that hourglass faster than it was 24 hours ago, when the team thought he’d just tweaked his back on a downfield route in Sunday’s win over the Jets.

This will be Gronkowski’s third back surgery that we know of. It’ll be his eighth surgery as a pro, and that’s only counting two of those three back surgeries (the first came in college). That’s a lot of times to be cut open, and uncertainty on availability makes it harder for a team to build its offense around you, which Gronkowski’s ability demands.

But that’s just the start of it. Because of all that history—which precipitated his 2010 draft drop to the second round and served as a motivating factor for a discounted contract just two years into his career—Gronkowski’s injuries are handled differently than those of other Patriots. Just last year, the Patriots and Gronkowski’s family released a joint statement after he sprained his knee.

Think about that the next time you hear Bill Belichick asked about an injury, and he grumbles about the report coming out after practice.

On top of that, there’s “Gronk” to the “Rob” that has given the Patriots everything he has over the last seven years. He’s a star, and likes the trappings of being one, and so there are un-Patriot-like allowances for that, too. You see the passage from Tim Tebow’s book, where Tebow said Belichick told him to decline a $1 million promotional appearance? Gronkowski put his name to a booze cruise last winter.

Gronkowski is a 27-year-old celebrity pro athlete, so all this isn’t that crazy. But in Foxboro, it does make you high-maintenance. And there, high-maintenance players better bring a high-level of performance. And once there’s any sign that the performance may not outdistance the maintenance, you’re probably not going to be long for that franchise.

Now, the question becomes whether or not the Patriots feel like they’re at that point. If they do, you better believe they won’t hesitate.

* * *

OK, so since this is a pretty major deal, here’s a breakdown of what it means for five important parties …

The Patriots, on the field: Having Martellus Bennett is a godsend, but it doesn’t fix everything. New England likes to run out of two tight-end sets, and losing Gronk, and having traded A.J. Derby, leaves the team perilously thin at the position. And besides just that, Gronkowski injuries in 2011, ’12, ’13 and ’15 can be connected directly to either lost seeding or playoff ousters. In 2014 he stayed healthy. The Pats won it all.

The Patriots, off the field: The Patriots entered last offseason with seven projected defensive starters going into contract years. They’ve traded two since, and haven’t extended any of the others. So consider that, and that Gronkowski has long been dissatisfied with his contract—a now-outdated eight-year deal he did in 2012. New England has a ton of cap space but has shown a reluctance to do new-world deals as the cap has led to an explosion of player payouts. The uncertainty surrounding the team’s best non-quarterback only further jumbles all that.

Gronkowski: Eight surgeries into his pro career, it’s hard to tell where his career goes next. Say what you will about his fragility, but he’s been resilient in returning from everything he has had and maintaining his absolutely dominating level of play. There comes a point, however, when football players start to think about their mortality. And if he’s there now, even with three years left on his deal, this may be the time to try to cash in, while he still has earning power, whether it’s in Foxboro or elsewhere.

Bennett: The Patriots would like to keep the mercurial playmaker. He turns 30 in March, meaning this will likely be his last bite of the financial apple. And on paper it’d seem Gronkowski’s injury would motivate New England to be aggressive in locking Bennett up. But consider that Gronkowski’s deal (three years, $24 million left) sets a natural ceiling for negotiations, and you’ll see how this one could be complicated, if Gronkowski is indeed in the team’s 2017 plans.

Brady: There’s a good chance Brady will be 40 when he next throws the ball in No. 87’s direction, again, assuming Gronkowski is part of the 2017 plan in New England. Looking at all the contractual uncertainty on defense, it could be a totally different team around No. 12 next fall.

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