COMMENTARY| Rob Gronkowski, the star tight end of the New England Patriots, has yet to play in 2013 because of a lengthy recovery from offseason surgeries. Although he is nearing a return, he should not be expected to save what has been a disappointing team offense.
The Patriots may be a strong 4-1, but their offense has been unexpectedly ordinary so far this season. They are currently averaging just 19 points per game, which is their lowest mark since 2000 when they averaged just over 17 points a game and finished with a 5-11 record.
Part of the offensive struggles have come from the team breaking in several rookie wide receivers, not to mention the offseason loss of Wes Welker to free agency, and tight end Aaron Hernandez to arrest/release. Even so, quarterback Tom Brady made his career creating big production from modest weapons, so this year's mediocrity is out of the ordinary.
The impending return of Gronkowski is a welcome sight but should not be mistaken as a cure-all.
The big 24-year-old has made two Pro Bowls in his first three seasons, accumulating 187 catches, 2,663 receiving yards and 38 touchdowns. Despite the gaudy numbers, he alone can't jumpstart the offense on his own.
Gronkowski has been practicing for weeks, and while he may be at full speed, his strength may not be all the way back. Patriots.com's Erik Scalavino reported the tight end was noticeably leaner when he first returned; the result of not being able to lift weights and work out in his customary manner during his lengthy convalescence.
The normally upbeat Gronkowski has been rather tight-lipped in talking about his health. He recently told WEEI's Christopher Price, "I'm just improving every week, I feel good every week and when everyone collaborates together and I feel ready to go, that's when it'll be." It may be speculation, but that sounds like a player still uncertain about his conditioning.
Defenses will also be able to zero in on Gronkowski more than ever. With the nimble Hernandez gone, he is the lone remaining threat at the tight end position.
The wide receivers lack a presence like Welker to demand consistent double-team coverage, so extra defenders will likely be pushed on Gronkowski.
Much of his value in the past has been how dangerous he has been in the red zone, as 29 of his career touchdowns have come from within the 20-yard line. However, with the Patriots struggling to move the ball more than they have in recent years, it's doubtful he will have as many chances as in the past.
Now, it's not as if Gronkowski's return won't have a positive impact on the Patriots; because it will. Fans have just become accustomed to him doing other-worldly things, and it will be much harder for him to continue at the same pace because of his rustiness and targeting by the opposition.
Even at partial strength, he will be an upgrade over Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan. They have accounted for a total of five catches, 39 yards and a touchdown to start the year-the only production the team has gotten from the tight end position.
Having been out for so long, Gronkowski will likely be eased in, gradually increasing his workload each week. In addition to getting his strength and confidence back, he missed out on the preseason and must work on establishing himself as part of team chemistry once again.
Yes, Gronkowski will help the Patriots, but true offensive improvement needs to come from other areas.
The young receivers must continue developing and grow up fast.
It would help for a running back to emerge as a primary option out of the backfield. Three different players (Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount) have led the team in single-game rushing through the first five contests.
Perhaps most importantly, Brady needs to play better. He has had some problems with fumbled snaps, shown an uncharacteristic impatience with the receivers, and generally not had the same pinpoint accuracy he has shown throughout his career.
It will be great to have Gronkowski back on the field and resuming his career. Just don't expect him to be the savior of a Patriots offense that has been very ordinary this season.
In addition to the Yahoo Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written extensively for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports (particularly the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots). He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.
You can also follow Andrew on Twitter: @HistorianAndrew.
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