FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The New England Patriots’ third Super Bowl appearance in the past four years already has a defining storyline. The status of Patriots All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, who left the AFC championship game with a concussion, will loom large over the next two weeks.
Gronkowski left the AFC championship in the second quarter after a violent helmet-to-helmet hit by Jacksonville Jaguars safety Barry Church. He was flagged for a 15-yard personal foul on the play, and Gronkowski almost immediately left the sideline to go into concussion protocol in the locker room. Gronkowski was initially ruled questionable to return before later being downgraded to out.
At his locker after the game, Church defended the hit and attempted to encapsulate the difficulty of a safety in that position attempting to hit a player at full speed. “It’s tough, man, it’s tough,” Church said.
“If you go too low on a guy you’re considered a dirty player and you can risk guys’ knees. If you go too high on a guy it’s unnecessary roughness.”
He added, holding his hands about 18 inches apart over his chest: “They want you to hit between here and here when we’re all moving 100 miles an hour. It’s pretty much impossible.”
The dilemma for Church summed up the difficulty of a safety making a play in that situation: “The guy is going up and stretching and he’s already 6-foot-8. You know. He’s jumping in the air. I felt like I had time to hit him in the chest without having to go low. He brought it down. When he brought it down, I led with the shoulder and hit. I guess, I didn’t watch the film yet. They felt there was lot of head-to-head contact. It was nothing intentional.”
There’s no uniform timetable on returns from concussions, although the two weeks between games will certainly help Gronkowski’s return.
The first step of the NFL’s concussion protocol is rest. That’s followed by “gradual exercise” and “gradual return to practice and play” only a player returns to what’s called “baseline status.”
In order to return, there’s a process that’s outlined in the NFL head, neck and spine committee’s return to participation protocol. Along with the Patriots team physician clearing Gronkowski, he also needs to be cleared by an “Independent Neurological Consultant with expertise in concussion.”
According to a Boston Globe article in 2016, Gronkowski has one publicized concussion. It happened in 2013 on a freak play where he also tore his ACL and MCL.
For the next two weeks, Gronkowski’s status will hover over the Patriots and their hopes to win back-to-back Super Bowls.
Church reserved judgement on his own call, but wasn’t overall impressed with the officiating.
“There were a lot of, in my opinion, questionable pass interference calls. It’s tough. You can’t really, if that’s what the refs feel like it is, that’s what it is. The Patriots beat us fair and square, we’re not blaming anyone. There was a couple of questionable calls.”
Church wants to see Gronkowski back for the Super Bowl on Feb. 4
“You never want to see a guy with head trauma like that,” he said. “I give him all the best wishes and hope he’s OK. You never want to see a guy with a head injury leave the game like that.”
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