Rob Gronkowski underwent surgery Friday to remove a portion of a disc in his low back that was compressing nerves and causing pain, numbness and possibly weakness in his leg(s). Immediately we heard opinions about whether or not his injury had been managed appropriately in allowing him to play against the Jets. Vic Carucci from the Buffalo News reported that Gronk’s back injury had actually occurred during the hit he took from Seattle’s Earl Thomas the week before. Given that the news came out of Buffalo (and that the Gronkowski family is from Buffalo) speculation swirled that the Gronks were once again displeased with how the Patriots had managed Rob’s injury. A joint statement from the team and the Gronkowski family was released soon after, clarifying that Gronk’s injury had indeed occurred during the Jets game and that he had been evaluated by both team and independent physicians who ultimately made the recommendation for surgery.
This story has been covered from every angle over the past few days, but two things still stick out for me. The first is that many reporters are still saying that Gronk “chose” surgery over sticking it out until the playoffs, for the good of his long-term health. I think this is incredibly unfair (although mostly likely unintentional). Recently Ian Rappaport of NFL Network wrote “Instead of fighting to get back by the AFC Championship game or the Super Bowl, the team, Gronkowski and his family opted for a long-term solution. Get away, get fully healthy, get back for 2017.” It is my opinion that Rob did not have much of a choice. He had tried nonoperative management – injections, months of painful physical therapy – for the disc he herniated in college, but it didn’t work. He eventually needed surgery anyway. There is little guarantee that trying to avoid surgery with rehab or injections would have allowed him to play in January. In fact, I think it was highly unlikely. Rob opted for surgery because it was the most effective and appropriate treatment for his condition. Given the degree of discomfort he appeared to be in trying to navigate stairs at Gillette the night of the injury and the reported pain in his legs I think there’s a good chance that surgery was Gronk’s only option.
The second thing that strikes me about Gronk’s injury is that he and his family have now issued two separate joint statements with the Patriots. Some say that the family and agent are difficult to work with, others suggest that the team cannot be trusted because of a history of mismanaging the superstar. One thing is clear – there is an obvious distrust between the Gronkowski family and the New England Patriots’ medical team. This idea of a joint statement is new, we really haven’t seen anything like it before Gronk. Listen, I’m sure that Gronk’s family is difficult to deal with, but I don’t think they’re wrong. They are advocating for their brother and their son. I encourage my patients and their families to do the same. Why isn’t this more standard? If the NFL is going to continue to allow team doctors to be employed by NFL teams, then they should expect a lot more statements like this. The system is inherently biased – team doctors’ salaries and job security are controlled by the team, this is not in the player’s best interest. The system needs an overhaul. (See my blog entry about problems with the NFL’s current medical system here).
But enough about Gronk for now, two other injuries have my eye today. Special teams captain Matthew Slater has been on the injury report since he twisted his left foot and ankle defending a punt return against Seattle two weeks ago. He was in a tremendous amount of pain and was unable to bear weight afterwards, leaving the stadium on crutches. I was happily surprised to see him active in practice last Wednesday because it looked like a significant ankle injury to me. Unfortunately, Slater seems to have suffered a setback last week and did not practice on Friday. He arrived at Gillette Sunday morning but was announced as inactive hours later. We should keep an eye on this injury in the week ahead.
Martellus Bennett is another player to watch. As the only experienced NFL tight end on the Patriots’ roster he will be expected to play a major role in the team’s offense for the remainder of the season. Unfortunately, he has been dealing with a nagging ankle injury that has caused him to be limited in practices and games. Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald was on the 98.5 Patriots Pregame show Sunday morning and reported that Bennett’s ankle injury was more of a result of a career’s worth of damage than an acute injury. Bennett sustained what I thought looked like a high ankle sprain in week 5 against the Browns and appeared to re-injure the same foot against the Jets two weeks ago. Howe said that his impression was that it was not a high ankle sprain and more of a chronic nagging issue. I am concerned by this. If Martellus is continuing to play in pain it can certainly impact his ability to get quick separation to help fill the void left by Gronk on the receiving end. Also, if his injury is more of a chronic ankle issue, it may not be something we should expect to improve as the season grinds on.
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