FOXBORO – It sounds the same, but carries two far different meanings.
Patriots fans sometimes cringe and at other times rejoice when someone remarks, “Gronk’s back.”
They cringe when someone’s talking about Rob Gronkowski’s troublesome back which has sidelined him numerous times over the past several seasons. They rejoice when it means that Gronkowski is back from an injury.
It’s time to rejoice. Gronk will be back on the field for the Patriots when they visit the Jets at 1 p.m. on Sunday after missing a 19-14 victory at Tampa Bay on Oct. 5. This time Gronk was out with a thigh injury instead of a back injury.
The Patriots won the Super Bowl last year without Gronk, who played only eight regular-season games before undergoing season-ending back surgery. Nevertheless, it’s always good to have Gronk back. With Julian Edelman sidelined by a torn ACL, Gronk has become even more important to Tom Brady.
Despite missing the win over Tampa Bay, Gronk ranks third among NFL tight ends with 318 receiving yards. Those yards rank second among all Patriots’ receivers, trailing only wideout Brandin Cooks’ 372. Gronk is tied for sixth among NFL tight ends with 20 receptions and he’s scored twice.
Gronk barely played against the Jets last season. After injuring his back on a hit by Seattle safety Earl Thomas on Nov. 13, he sat out a win over the 49ers the following week, but returned when the Pats edged the Jets, 22-17, on Nov. 27. He wasn’t himself though. Gronk was targeted only twice and didn’t catch any passes in what would turn out to be his last appearance of the season. So he missed a 41-3 thumping of the Jets at Gillette Stadium on Christmas Eve.
Young defenders often use Gronk has a measuring stick to prove to themselves that they can cover the best.
“I would say so,” Gronk said Friday after practice at Gillette Stadium, “I mean sometimes. I wouldn’t say that’s always the case, but I’ve seen it before.”
And they’re not quiet about it.
“I’ve heard guys on the field talking,” Gronk said. “When facing younger guys, like when you do get D’ed up, they D you up, you hear them talking, you hear them talking smack. So that could be the case.”
When defenders talk smack to him, how does Gronk respond?
“I’m not really a talker like that,” he said. “You’ve got to (expend) all your energy during the game on the plays.”
Gronk may not say much in return, but he thrives when defenders talk trash.
“I would say a lot of people do,” he said. “I like when people talk garbage to me.”
The Jets start two rookies who will try to hold Gronk in check: Strong safety Jamal Adams of LSU and free safety Marcus Maye of Florida.
“They’re definitely pretty good rookies, too,” Gronk said, “being able to start right off the bat at both safety positions. They’re young, they’re healthy, they’re ready to roll, they’re ready to play hard. They’re aggressive too. You don’t see any times that they back down.”
After practice on Thursday, Adams raved about Gronk when speaking to reporters.
“He’s a wonderful talent,” Adams said. “Future Hall of Famer, big-bodied guy. Definitely is going to stretch the field, can definitely run all the routes and we definitely got to get after him.”
There wasn’t anything controversial about those comments, but during the game may be different.
Before the Pats trounced the Jets on Christmas Eve, each of their previous seven meetings were decided by a touchdown or loss. The Pats won four times by five points or less and the Jets won twice in overtime. Gronk attributed the closeness of the games to the fact that the teams play in the same division and know each other so well.
“Very tough team, always, always a tough game, always a close game,” Gronk said. “Always a battle to the end. It’s going to be fun. The atmosphere is going to be great out there in New York. It’s going to be a battle.”
Gronk may have been able to go if the Pats played last Sunday, but they played on Thursday, just four days after he injured his thigh against Carolina.
“I just wasn’t ready to roll,” he said. “There was no chance.”
So he watched from the sidelines.
“You just cheer for your teammates,” Gronk said. “You’re just there for support. You’re there to help out. … If you see anything, just give little tips to your teammates.”
The good news is he’s had two weeks to recover and he’s back.
“Whatever the coaches call, I’ll be ready,” he said.
Contact Bill Doyle at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BillDoyle15