FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The Super Bowl ankle jinx has struck the New England Patriots again.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski missed the team’s first practice for the game Thursday with a left ankle injury. Four years earlier, quarterback Tom Brady skipped practice for a week before the game with an injured right ankle.
Both offensive stars were hurt in the third quarter of the AFC championship game. Brady recovered enough to play against the New York Giants. The Patriots hope Gronkowski does the same.
“It’s the Super Bowl, so we’re all trying to get out there and be healthy,” Brady said Thursday. “You put all the work in over the course of the entire year and have the opportunity to play in this game. Everyone’s going to be doing everything they can to be out there.”
The Patriots have given no details on the extent of Gronkowski’s injury and he was not available during the period when reporters had locker room access. But with more than a week before the Super Bowl on Feb. 5, there’s no need to rush him back.
He returned to last Sunday’s 23-20 win over the Baltimore Ravens in the fourth quarter, about five minutes after being helped off the field and going to the locker room with a slight limp. He was hurt in the final minute of the third quarter after catching a 23-yard pass from Brady.
After the victory, Gronkowski remained on the field, raised over his head the Lamar Hunt Trophy that goes to the AFC champions and yelled in celebration as fans cheered.
The next day, just as Brady was in 2008, Gronkowski was seen wearing a protective boot on his injured ankle.
Aaron Hernandez, the versatile half of the Patriots unique tight end combination, said Thursday the usually upbeat Gronkowski seems cheerful.
“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Hernandez said. “He’s full of excitement, never in a bad mood, always happy. So I’m pretty sure he’s still happy.”
Coach Bill Belichick, typically, was less revealing.
Asked how Gronkowski was progressing, he said, “good, good.”
And he was noncommittal on how the Patriots would be affected if Gronkowski plays in the Super Bowl without practising for it.
“We’ll just have to see, you know,” Belichick said. “He’s not going to practice today, so take it day by day. I’m not going to try to forecast where things will be 10 days from now. We’ll just take it day by day.”
But what if the powerful pass catcher can’t play against the Giants?
How would they do without the six-foot-six, glue-fingered receiver and dominating blocker who set an NFL record for tight ends with 17 touchdown catches and finished fifth in the NFL with 90 receptions and sixth with 1,327 yards receiving?
“If he’s not here, then it’s obviously going to be a lot tougher on me,” Hernandez said. “He draws so much attention because of how big he is, how physical, his speed. So it makes it a lot easier on me. It makes me into a better player.”
Giants coach Tom Coughlin knows how important Gronkowski is to the Patriots.
“This is a player who has written the record books along the way for tight ends,” he said. “Gronkowski certainly is someone Brady looks to in the red zone.”
That doesn’t mean the Patriots can’t win with Gronkowski at less than full strength — or sidelined altogether.
Running back Kevin Faulk, a member of the Patriots since 1999, doesn’t think that should affect them.
“One guy is not supposed to stop us. We’re supposed to execute no matter what,” Faulk said. “It’s the game. Next guy up. You know it’s been the story around here forever. Prime example is Tom Brady.”
In 2008, Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener and the Patriots went 11-5 with Matt Cassel filling in.
“Tom Brady went down, everybody thought the season was dead,” Faulk said. “It’s the game. It’s the system. It’s what we do. Next guy up, somebody got hurt.”
The durable Gronkowski has played in all 35 games since the Patriots drafted him in the second round out of Arizona. Belichick said he took part in just about all of this season’s practices before Thursday.
Hernandez is the only other tight end on the roster. On Thursday, the Patriots signed to the practice squad tight end Carson Butler, who spent most of the 2010 season on their practice squad and was released Sept. 2. But he wasn’t seen during the 15 minutes when reporters could observe.
So Hernandez was a lonely sight, stretching and drinking Gatorade before drills began.
“A little boring,” he said, “but (Gronkowski) will be out there soon.”
Just like Brady was four years ago.
“I wasn’t going to miss that game,” he said. “I don’t miss many. I certainly wasn’t going to miss that one.”