|TE Rob Gronkowski celebrates a TD on Sunday against the Dolphins. (US Presswire)|
All the evidence suggested that Rob Gronkowski was back and normalcy had returned to the New England region.
There the Patriots were, lined up in the fearsome two-receiver sets that baffled opposing defenses last season. There was Gronk blocking at the end of the line, catching touchdown passes and throwing down spikes. In those moments, everything looked normal during Sunday's 28-0 win over the Miami Dolphins.
That is, until you noticed Gronkowski surgically repaired left forearm hanging limp or tucked away inside of the white wrap that was supposed to protect it from harm.
In those moments, it was clear that Gronkowski still has ground to cover before being declared fully back from his injury, but Sunday was the necessary first step toward restoring order and regaining a feeling of normalcy within the New England offense.
“You always want to get some reps before heading into the playoffs,” Gronkowski said. “It's good to get the speed down, the feel of the game.”
If that was the goal, then mission accomplished. The tight end finished with two catches for 42 yards and appeared to be the force he was the last time he touched the field Nov. 18 against the Indianapolis Colts when he pulled in a 23-yard reception for a touchdown.
But that play was just one of the 25 for which he was on the field. On most other plays, it was clear that there is still road to travel. Gronkowski kept his left arm tucked and attempted to block with his right shoulder on the few running plays in which he participated. At other points, in an attempt to protect him from the contact that takes place along the line, he split out wide like a receiver.
When asked about this approach, Gronkowski smiled as if he had been caught in a bluff and noted that he was simply doing whatever it took to be on the field.
“I was just out there doing what I had to do,” Gronkowski said, later adding that it felt good to take some contact. “We got a week off now, I'm just gonna be in the training room, trying to get stronger every day so I can go out there and make some good blocks when it comes down to it.”
Perhaps it was too soon for him to endure full-fledged contact for a full 60 minutes, but with New England earning a first-round playoff bye, Gronkowski would have gone nearly two months between games if he sat out Sunday against Miami.
It was a necessary step to get him and the rest of the offense back in gear before its playoff run begins Jan 13, especially considering that it was just the fourth time this season that Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez lined up together at tight end this season.
But in that small sampling, Hernandez could already see a difference in how the offense operated and was defended with his running mate back at his side.
“You know when Gronk is on the field you've got to double him,” Hernandez said. “He's too big and too athletic, so it opens up for me,
QBTom Brady voiced a similar sentiment, saying that it was nice to have his full complement of receivers available to him.
“Well, just to use their different skill sets,” Brady said. “Those guys -- Gronk caught a big touchdown. Aaron caught some pretty critical first down plays. Those are flexible guys.”
New England will need that flexibility and have all those parts at something nearing full strength to get back to the Super Bowl. After seeing Gronkowski back on the field, there's restored hope that everything will be OK moving forward.
The Patriots played it coy throughout the week leading up to Sunday's game, acting as though Gronkowski still hadn't received medical clearance to play in the game. The player, however, tipped New England's hand by revealing that he knew he was going to play as early as Monday, later backtracking after realizing his error.
But all of that is over now. Gronkowski put an end to the will-he-or-won't-he speculation that has dominated the locker room for nearly two weeks when he threw an emphatic spike down following his fourth-quarter touchdown, his 11th of the season despite missing five games.
Now the Patriots can simply focus on moving forward knowing that Brady's full cache of weapons will be available once the playoffs start.
“It was a blast being back on the field,” Gronkowski said.
Even at fraction of his normal self, his fans and teammates probably felt the same way Sunday afternoon.
Nick Underhill covers the Patriots for MassLive.com. Follow him on Twitter @CBSPats or @Nick_Underhill.