By HOWARD ULMAN
FOXBOROUGH, Mass.— Another week, another round of Gronk questions.
And another few days before it becomes clearer whether the New England Patriots star tight end might make his 2013 debut Sunday.
Rob Gronkowski has missed all five games while recovering from offseason surgeries on his left forearm and back. But he’s getting closer to playing and that could happen against the unbeaten New Orleans Saints on Sunday, which should help the Patriots struggling offense.
A person with knowledge of Gronkowski’s health says doctors haven’t cleared him to play yet and won’t know for a few days. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because no official announcement was made. Gronkowski participated in practice on a limited basis on Wednesday.
ProFootballTalk.com reported Tuesday that he is expected to be cleared to play this week and that it’s likely but not definite that he’ll play.
Gronkowski has been asked about his status on Wednesdays throughout the season. But he’s shed little light on when he might return, saying repeatedly he’s taking it “day by day.”
He skipped this week’s media availability Wednesday and was expected to speak Thursday.
Quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick also get peppered with questions about when Gronkowski will return but provide little insight.
“Whenever that happens, who knows?” Brady said Wednesday. “I feel like I’ve kind of talked about it a lot the past five weeks. If he is there, he’s there. If he’s not, he’s not. We’re going to try to win anyway.”
Belichick answered several questions about Gronkowski on Wednesday.
His response to three of them: “day to day.”
And how did he look in practice?
“He practiced,” Belichick said.
The interest in Gronkowski has intensified as Brady and the Patriots offense have been inconsistent. But the team is 4-1, so rushing Gronkowski back hasn’t been imperative. And the Patriots are still favorites to win the AFC East even though Miami (3-2) and the New York Jets (3-2) are off to decent starts.
That said, the Patriots are 24th in the NFL in scoring after leading the league last year. Brady is 22nd in passer rating after ranking sixth in 2012. So, clearly, Gronkowski, who has 187 catches in his 43 games with the Patriots, would help, especially in the red zone.
After all, this season, New England tight ends have five receptions — total.
“When you get down in the red zone, you want to score a touchdown,” rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins said. “You don’t want to score three points. Sometimes when you score three points, it can hurt you and, unfortunately, that’s what cost us in the Cincinnati game.”
The Patriots reached the red zone just once in last Sunday’s 13-6 loss to the Bengals but settled for a field goal after getting a first down at the 1-yard line.
“Whoever is out there, whatever personnel, every play is designed to make positive yards, and a lot of them are designed to score touchdowns,” Brady said. “But they don’t always do that, so we’re trying to figure out how to do that and do better than what we’ve done the first five weeks.”
The 6-foot-6 Gronkowski could make a huge difference with his strong hands, ability to shield the ball from defenders and skill at reaching for passes with his long arms.
The Patriots didn’t put him on the physically unable to perform list at the start of the season. That would have required him to miss the first six games and barred him from practice.
He hasn’t missed a practice since the season began and could be back for the sixth game on Sunday. He was listed as questionable for the past three games after being doubtful for the previous two. The final injury report comes out after Friday’s practice.
“He’s a beast, man. I can’t wait to see him, whenever he gets backs,” receiver Aaron Dobson said. “Being out there practicing with him kind of gives you a feel of being out there but in a game … it could be different.”
Gronkowski is also a quality safety valve, a player Brady can dump the ball off to when pressured.
“He’s got a lot of excitement and brings a lot of energy to the team. He’s a great player,” Brady said. “I’m just kind of waiting like everyone else. Whenever it is, it is. We’re 4-1. We’ve won four games without him. If he is not there this week, we’ve got to try to go 5-1 anyway.
“Hopefully, when he does get back out there, we will be more productive.”