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Gronkowski says he'll play, but high ankle sprains aren't easy to shake off

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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That left ankle and walking boot belong to Rob Gronkowski. Will he be able to cut and run routes on it? (AP)  
That left ankle and walking boot belong to Rob Gronkowski. Will he be able to cut and run routes on it? (AP)  

INDIANAPOLIS -- When the New England Patriots landed here Sunday afternoon, injured tight end Rob Gronkowski was walking with his left foot in a protective boot ... which is the way it has been since he was hurt in the AFC Championship Game.

It's also the way it could be most of this week when ... if ... you catch a glimpse of the guy, with speculation centering on his availability for Super Bowl XLVI.

Gronkowski said that's not an issue and that he's playing. His father seconded that, and I believe them. Except ... except that's what Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey told us last year after suffering a high ankle sprain in the conference championship game, and he didn't make it to Super Bowl XLV.

I couldn't tell you what Gronkowski's chances of playing are, and coach Bill Belichick can't, either. As expected, he wasn't saying much of anything at all about his star tight end Sunday at the opening news conference, other than "he's day to day."

But I know a physician who will, and he's not all that high on Gronk's chances.

"I've not examined him," said Dr. Steven Weinfeld, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at New York's Mt. Sinai School of Medicine's Department of Orthopedics, "but I'd be very surprised if he plays."

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That doesn't mean he won't. In fact, Weinfeld said he wouldn't rule it out. But he also said he can't imagine Gronkowski playing effectively. Though the Patriots haven't gone public with a diagnosis of Gronk's injury, his father called it a high ankle sprain, and all I know about high ankle sprains is that it's difficult to shake them off in one to two weeks.

I offer Pouncey last year as Exhibit A. I offer Pouncey this year as Exhibit B. He suffered a high ankle sprain in the 13th game of the season and not only missed the next two starts; he missed three of the last four. And I'll offer his quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, as Exhibit C. Big Ben suffered the same injury in the same contest as Pouncey -- a Dec. 8 defeat of Cleveland -- and played through it the next game at San Francisco.

That's the good news. The bad: He stunk. He threw no touchdowns, had three interceptions and produced a season-low 52.3 passer rating.

He also sat down the following weekend. I know, he started three of the Steelers' last four games, but he was never the same after injuring his ankle. He completed 56.4 percent of his passes, with one touchdown, four interceptions and a passer rating of 66.59. Plus, he was 1-2.

Like I said: He stunk.

"This is the kind of thing where trainers could potentially stabilize the ankle externally with tape," Weinfeld said of the injury, "and potentially some type of anti-inflammatory injection could be used to kill the pain. But he's such a big guy who needs to cut sharply that there's much more stress with this type of injury vs. someone who just needs to run straight ahead running without cutting."

Meaning?

"Even if he is able to play," Weinfeld said, "I would think his effectiveness would be limited."

Gronkowski was injured late in the third period of the Patriots' 23-20 defeat of Baltimore but returned in the fourth quarter. That, alone, would lead you to believe his injury is no big deal. Except it is, and it's not just Pouncey and Roethlisberger who convince me. It's Weinfeld.

"Often, with these types of injuries," Weinfeld said, "the magnitude or maximum swelling or inflammation doesn't occur for 24 to 48 hours. So he's feeling a lot worse a couple of days afterward than he is right after it happens."

When Gronkowski walked across the tarmac Sunday at Indianapolis he didn't walk with a limp. In fact, if you weren't looking for a brace or boot on his left foot, you wouldn't know he was hurt. But remember what happened with Pouncey a year ago. Then keep in mind that offensive linemen are required to make as many lateral movements as, say, a tight end who caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns.

"I think we may be looking at something very similar [to Pouncey]," Weinfeld said. "There is a big difference between a lineman and a receiver, and yes, I know linemen need to have stable feet and ankles, but they don't make the cuts that a receiver does. You can immobilize that ankle and not compromise a lineman as much as you would a skill-position type of player."

Tell that to the Patriots. No, tell it to Rob Gronkowski. He ... they ... approach Super Bowl XLVI as if Gronkowski will play ... which he might. The question is: How limited will he be, and what impact will it have on the Patriots?

"It's a concern," wide receiver Wes Welker said, "but at the same time, you don't worry about it. It's something that will take care of itself in the end."

Maybe.

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