Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Question is, can we get beyond Rob Gronkowski's ankle?

INDIANAPOLIS

His hands. Rob Gronkowski should be talking about his hands.

They are great hands, after all. Huge hands. Strong hands. Workingman's hands. They are hands that were good enough to catch 90 passes this season, some off his shoe tops, some out of the sky, 17 of them for touchdowns.

His legs. Gronkowski should be answering questions about his legs.

They are swift legs, especially for a man his size. There is balance in those legs. There is quickness. They are legs that gained 1,327 yards, more than any tight end in the history of the league.

This week, Gronkowski should be talking about a great many things. His goofy personality, for one thing. His followers in Gronk Nation, for another. His impact. His youth. His family. The way he spikes a ball as if it has somehow angered him.

Instead, he talks about his left ankle. Over and over and furthermore, over. He talks about the trainers. He says today is better than yesterday. He talks about all the film he is watching. And then he talks about his ankle some more.

More than anything, this Super Bowl has been the Ballad of Gronk's Ank. It is the biggest thing in town, bigger than the Capitol building, bigger than Lucas Oil Stadium. Soon, it might have its own endorsement deals.

There hasn't been an ankle this big since the will-he-play-or-won't-he-play questions that were being thrown at the Eagles' Terrell Owens back in 2005. (Owens not only played, he caught nine passes for 122 yards).

Consider Thursday morning, when Gronkowski walked into the interview tent next to the Patriots' team hotel wearing a knit cap with an upside-side down Super Bowl logo on it. He spotted the media waiting by his table and immediately broke into an exaggerated, Johnny-Comes-Marching-Home-Again limp. Then he grinned that lopsided grin of his.

"Day by day," Gronkowski said, which has been his day-by-day response. He will not guess a percentage. He will not elaborate on what the trainers are doing down there. He says there is no magical new cleat, as reports have said. There are just the same options on how to give the ankle the best support.

He does allow that, by now, his other ankle might be jealous.

"With all the attention his ankle is getting," quarterback Tom Brady said earlier in the week, "he should write, 'Mom, I love you,' on his sock."

Gronkowski's owskie is a big deal, of course, because Gronkowski is a big deal. You can argue that he has had the finest season any tight end has ever had. Others — Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Jimmy Graham — have had more receptions, but none ever approached his yardage or his touchdowns.

John Mackey never had a 1,000-yard season. Charlie Sanders never caught more than 42 passes in a season. Kellen Winslow never had more than 10 touchdown catches in a season.

If Gronkowski were healthy, that's what everyone would be talking about. No quarterback has ever thrown more to tight ends than Brady — Aaron Hernandez, the team's other tight end, caught 79 passes this season.

"If we play without Gronkowski," said Hernandez, a former Florida player, "it would be like playing without our best player."

On a team with Brady, that might be a stretch. But you get the point.

Say this for Gronkowski. It didn't take him long to win the fans. He is only 22 and already has achieved cult-level status in Boston. He's the guy who runs Gronkowski.com, where for a few dollars you can invest in an "I Got Gronked" T-shirt.

He's the guy Timbaland produced a song about. He's the guy who got in trouble for posing for pictures with a porn star named BiBi Jones (nothing happened there, he says, but he apologized never­theless). He's the guy who, trying to speak Spanish after the AFC title game, said, “Yo soy fiesta." Which means, of course, "I am party." There is now a Boston billboard that bears the phrase.

Why do fans love him so?

"Maybe they're a little fiesta, too," he said.

He wants to play. Of course he does. He is frustrated by the ankle. Of course he is. He is tired of the questions. Who wouldn't be? He says it will be his decision, because it is his body, and no one else can know his pain level. Then someone evokes the name of Bill Beli­chick, and Gronkowski grins.

"Maybe I'm just pretending it's my decision," he said.

There are skeptics, of course. There are those who have suggested the ankle isn't injured as badly as some say, that maybe it's the dreaded high-ankle sprain after all. There are others who believe that the Patriots know that Gronkowski can't play, and that all of this is a ruse to make the Giants work on stopping him. These are the Patriots, of course, and Belichick has been known to treat the injury report like a board game.

Here's the best guess: Gronkowski will be play Sunday, but who knows how effective he will be? The 2010 second-round pick out of Arizona will give it a shot, because he's a tough guy. But strong men, tough men, have a hard time running on a bad ankle.

"Maybe I'll have a miraculous recovery," Gronkowski said. "Maybe I'll wake up Sunday, and I'll be just fine."

If so, there may be a lot of questions for Gronkowski after the game.

Not all of them would be about his ankle.

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