Gronk not peaking, but Patriots 'better when he's on the field'

Rob Gronkowski is taking a lot of hits, and his numbers have suffered, but he keeps getting up. Billie Weiss/Getty Images

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has put together an impressive collection of eye-opening plays in his nine-year NFL career, with his rare combination of size, speed and athleticism producing some truly jaw-dropping moments.

Catching the ball in traffic. Carrying defenders on his back. Delivering pummeling blocks in the running game.

Gronkowski, at his best, has been one of the NFL’s most powerful forces.

This is why what unfolded late in the second quarter of Sunday’s win over the Minnesota Vikings stood out as such an outlier, and sparks a question as to whether Gronkowski can ultimately get the consistent explosion back in his legs in order to return to his status as the game’s premier tight end.

In the official box score, it reads as a 4-yard completion to Gronkowski, but there was much more to it than that.

The Patriots were carefully managing the clock in their two-minute offense, facing a second-and-5, when Gronkowski -- moving laterally from right to left -- caught the football 1 yard shy of the sticks. Safety Anthony Harris chased him and didn’t make contact until after Gronkowski had caught the ball and began to turn up the field.

In the tale of the tape, the 6-foot-6, 268-pound Gronkowski had favorable odds to lunge forward and get the necessary yardage against Harris, who is 6-foot-1 and 202 pounds.

The officials initially ruled he did.

But after further review, Harris managed to ride Gronkowski laterally and keep him short of the first-down marker.

That it was even a question was telling, because at his best, Gronkowski has always been the player initiating contact in those situations, driving his legs with powerful force and playing fearlessly, whether it’s a 202-pound safety or two 202-pound safeties bearing down on him.

But since Gronkowski landed on the injury report with ankle and back injuries two months ago -- missing three games over a five-week stretch -- he hasn't been that player. Hence the reason Gronkowski's production is considerably down in nine games played, as he has totaled 35 receptions for 530 yards and two touchdowns.

He's still helping the Patriots -- playing 69 of 70 offensive snaps two weeks ago against the Jets and 73 of 74 against the Vikings on Sunday -- just not at peak Gronkowski levels.

"It’s great to have him back out there. Certainly coming back and working back into it, he’s practicing hard," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "He has a great attitude and approach, he’s unselfish and does whatever [you need]. Ran-block pretty well the other night and does some things, too, that don’t necessarily get noticed or don’t show up on the stat sheet, but helps us do a lot of different things and also takes a tremendous amount of coverage. Sometimes they put a lot of attention to him and the ball goes somewhere else."

Gronkowski, whose upbeat demeanor uplifts his teammates, seemed to have an extra hop in his step the past two weeks. His interactions with reporters were filled with humor and smiles.

But after Sunday's game, in which he took a big hit over the middle in the second half, got up slowly and missed one play to be evaluated on the sideline, he didn't answer questions from reporters.

So keeping an eye on Gronkowski as the team returns to practice Wednesday -- with an eye toward Sunday's road game against the Dolphins -- is on the radar.

"I think he’s in a good place, continues to work hard, and he’s always patient and unselfish, and he’s a great teammate," McDaniels said. "We’re better when he’s on the field."