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September 29. 2013 10:50PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Waiting for Gronkowski isn't easy

DEPENDING on what one read or watched leading up to Sunday night's game, Rob Gronkowski sat out of the Patriots' prime time tilt against the Falcons because of his back injury. Or because of his forearm injury. Or because he doesn't personally think he's ready to return. Or because his father doesn't think he's ready. Or because the Pats doctors and coaches haven't deemed him ready.

Depending on the source — and depending on their sources — the story changes quite a bit. So does the level of salaciousness, and the degree to which the date of Gronkowski's eventual return will ultimately be thought more than merely a football story.

But the reality is that there's probably some truth to every explanation as to every report on why Gronkowski missed his fourth straight contest. Indeed, there are probably lingering concerns about the forearm that he's broken twice in the past calendar year, and that has required several surgeries to heal completely.

There's probably some hesitation about his surgically repaired back, considering a back injury cost him a full season of college, and he's just 14 weeks removed from a procedure that was expected to be followed by at least 12 weeks of rehabilitation.

He probably has those concerns himself. If he does, of course his dad would, too. And the Patriots' doctors and coaches have to be mindful not only of his arm and his back, but his general well-being and usefulness as his health relates to strength and football conditioning.

So, with his contract committing him to the Patriots long term, and with his return to full health an important priority for both sides of this supposed dispute both this season and beyond, don't make too much of all this. Sure, it's juicy. And it's got the dramatic elements of a football soap opera.

But unless this really makes you (and, for that matter, the Patriots) question Gronkowski's toughness, his own commitment to New England, or his desire to help the Pats win, it shouldn't be an issue that remains beyond his first big catch or crushing block. Especially if that's followed by healthy, productive, uninterrupted football the rest of the way.

Remember, the tight end is the same guy who hobbled his way through Super Bowl XLVI with a foot injury that was still showing affects at the start of the next training camp, then who hurried back last season in hopes of contributing in the playoffs.

And Gordy Gronkowski Sr. is also the same dad who urged his son to consider exercising a sizable insurance policy instead of having back surgery while at the University of Arizona, according to the "Growing up Gronkowski" book the family co-authored, and who been critical of the rehab care Rob and his other sons have received while rehabbing injuries.

If he's interfering here on behalf of what he thinks are his son's best interests, it's hard to fault him. And though it might annoy Bill Belichick, or perhaps even some other Patriots players, in the end they all want the same outcome. They all want Gronkowski to be healthy enough to help put up numbers and win games.

And as long as that comes, this story will go away.

______

GRONKOWSKI was officially questionable for the game, as was receiver Danny Amendola, but neither made the trip to Atlanta, and thus they led New England's list of inactives.

Special teams captain Matthew Slater was the rare inactive player to travel, missing his second straight game with a wrist injury, but supporting the team from the sidelines. Running back Leon Washington was also there, as a game time decision, but he also missed the contest. Steve Beauharnais, Jake Bequette and Chris Barker were also inactive.

The biggest name to sit out for Atlanta was former Pats cornerback Asante Samuel, whose ailing thigh landed him on the injury report for the first time Friday, and subsequently cost him his second game of the season. Running back Steven Jackson was also out for the Falcons, though that was announced earlier in the week.

______

WHEN Tom Brady took to the Georgia Dome turf on Sunday night, the Patriots' quarterback had a record of 3-0 this season. And so did his former backups.

Earlier Sunday, Brian Hoyer won his second straight start since assuming the helm of the Browns' offense, with Cleveland upsetting the Cincinnati squad that New England encounters next week, 17-6. Hoyer threw for 269 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, an efficient performance that put the Brows into an early tie atop the AFC North, knotted with the Bengals and Ravens, all at 2-2.

The Steelers, on the contrary, occupy the division's basement at 0-4 after former Patriot Matt Cassel steered the Vikings to a 34-27 triumph in London. Adrian Peterson led the way for the purple, per usual, but Cassel was quality in place of Christian Ponder, completing 64 percent of his passes, totaling 248 yards and connecting for two scores to Greg Jennings.

______

WELL, the AFC North looks mediocre thus far, might the AFC East be emerging as a better division than many expected? A quarter of the way through the campaign, there are indications that it could be.

Miami is 3-0 entering a Monday Night Football tilt, while Sunday afternoon Buffalo improved to 2-2 by beating Baltimore, 23-20, in a game where the Bills controlled the clock and opened up a 16-point second-half lead on the reigning champions. Later in the day the Jets lost to the Titans, though that signified the first time this season that an AFC East team had lost a game outside the division.

To that point, the four clubs had combined to win their first six games against the rest of the NFL.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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