Injuries in the National Football League are emotionally crushing, even during the dog days of summer.
When players' bodies aren't working properly, it clouds the future and provides a murky, unfinished image of what a team will ultimately look like.
Case in point—the New England Patriots.
They're a tough bunch to nail down right now. They've been dealing with bumps, bruises, surgeries and rehabs for months. Their fans are justifiably invested in these injuries because the fate of the 2013-14 season may hang in the balance.
For many fans, the concern begins at the top with tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The concern stretches back to 2010 when his draft profile on NFL.com highlighted "durability issues" as his weakness, referencing the three games he missed in 2008 for the University of Arizona and the back surgery which caused him to miss his 2009-10 senior season.
The Patriots weighed the issues and elected to pick him anyway.
At the end of the 2011-12 season, Gronkowski had surgery to repair an ankle injury from the AFC Championship Game. Expectations were that he'd roar into the 2012-13 season with a vengeance, but that didn't happen.
Gronkowski instead eased into last season. He was a work in progress all year, as his conditioning and improvement always felt like a week-to-week thing.
Then injuries started piling up, beginning in November against the Colts when he broke his left forearm and missed five games. In January, he re-broke his arm against the Texans in the playoffs and in February, he had surgery to clear an infection in the same arm.
As if the forearm situation wasn't enough, concern began growing about potential back surgery for the tight end following his fourth surgery on his forearm. ESPN's John Clayton addressed this issue last Monday, saying:
The New England Patriots now have to be concerned because a fifth operation for Rob Gronkowski could really throw off everything in training camp and also the start of the regular season.
Everything was expected to be going as planned, when they had the fourth surgery planned on the forearm. They knew it was a 10-week, 11-week recovery, everything was on schedule there. But now you have to throw in the disc problem and where this is going to hurt, even though he can recover in time, is it’s gonna hurt his conditioning.
He has been in great shape, that’s one thing I think that’s been very positive. But now, if it’s gonna slow down his conditioning to go with his recovery from the forearm surgery, it could throw everything back.
Nevertheless, they still anticipate he’s gonna be there for the regular season. But another surgery, particularly one to a problem he’s had before, is a concern that really worries the Patriots.
There is optimism with the results of Monday's surgery. There were no signs of infection. They did take some cultures to test, and if for whatever reason there is a residual infection that is found, they feel that it can be treated with antibiotics.
The best-case scenario is that Gronkowski returns in about the ten-week time frame, although a possible surgery on a disc in his back still looms, so that can alter any projected time frame.
The worst case scenario is that Gronkowski wouldn’t be ready for the regular season.
Unfortunately, New England's injury saga extends beyond just Gronkowski.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman has been in a walking boot for a portion of the offseason whilerehabbing a foot inury which derailed his 2012-13 season. His start dates for camp are still up in the air as is any clear grasp on what his role, or health, will look like in 2013.
There were also reports that tight end Aaron Hernandez had shoulder surgery earlier in the offseason according to NFL.com and ESPN. This comes after he missed six games last season and saw a major dip in his numbers from the previous season.
Another player to monitor is wide receiver Danny Amendola, who missed five games in 2012-13 and 15 games in 2011-12. Fans will also be keeping an eye on defensive end Chandler Jones, cornerback Aqib Talib, linebacker Dane Fletcher, cornerback Ras-I Dowling and running back Stevan Ridley—all of whom were struggling with varying degrees of injuries when we last saw them in action.
For Patriots fans, concern is warranted, but remember, it's only May. There's a long way to go so it's too soon to worry about what New England's health will look like in December and into the playoffs, which is when health matters most.
Even so, with all of that time, it still might be difficult for some to balance the stress of Gronkowski's situation. It's a mess, no doubt. For those fans who are burdened by the unreliability of Gronkowski's body, it might help to readjust the expectations they have of him. The same goes for Hernandez.
Getting these tight ends at simultaneous prime health will be a matter of timing, matters of timing can't be relied upon. One should have faith, but not expectation.
If you expect perpetually injured players to be healthy, then you're doubling your anxiety level—tripling it, even. You're also setting yourself up for disappointment, so why do that?
The power of this tight end tandem is akin to capturing lightning in a bottle—let it happen as it happens while accepting the possibility that it might not happen at all.
Lowering expectations for Gronkowski and Hernandez may sting, but keep in mind that the allegiance here isn't to the two-tight end setup, it's to winning.
That's truly the Patriot way.
It's not about dedication to personalities or schemes or structures. It's about rings and banners. That's the system that owner Robert Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have built in New England and it's a good system.
A good system with nine new receivers for Brady to play with.
If the two-tight end attack is unreliable as a focal point of the offense, shake it up. Instead of fixating on how Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui can compensate for an incomplete tandem or keep a shaky blueprint afloat, think about how Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Mike Jenkins, Lavelle Hawkins, Mark Harrison, Kenbrell Thompkins, T.J. Moe, Amendola and Donald Jones might go about bringing this offense back to a more reliable receiver-based focus.
Go with whatever works. As far as I'm concerned, Brady can throw it to the guys who fire the muskets. He can throw to the cheerleaders, too, if they're open and healthy—anything just so long as they win a championship this season and get this monkey off their back.
Here's the easiest way to tell whether or not you should be concerned.
Those expecting Gronkowski and Hernandez to duplicate their domination from 2011-12 and lead the march to a title in 2013-14 should be concerned. However, those fans expecting Brady and his new receivers to spark a new fire and lead the way to another championship this season with sporadic input from Gronkowski and Hernandez along the way should be very hopeful, encouraged and extremely excited.
In other regards to all of the offseason injuries, keep in mind that a team's headlines during the offseason don't necessarily indicate where it is headed. Teams like the Patriots, Giants, Ravens and Packers routinely stay quiet during the offseason, just before they win world titles.
By that rationale, it's wise to be patient with New England's offseason injuries. Things will get better. Bruises and scrapes aside, this is a good team and a contending team. Brady is New England's passport to the playoffs, but his new receivers and a revamped defense could very well be a ticket to the Super Bowl.
By that same token of taking offseason headlines with a grain of salt, it would be wise to take the Broncos' preseason bravado with that same grain. It's just noise.
Remember, it's only May. The tide has a funny way of turning in this game.
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