FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Gronk to the rescue?
Maybe this Sunday, maybe not.
No one's saying if tight end Rob Gronkowski is healthy enough to save the New England Patriots shaky passing attack after he missed the first two games.
Not Gronkowski, who said Wednesday, "there's really nothing new to report."
Not coach Bill Belichick, who said, "We haven't practiced today. We've just been sitting in meetings. He looked great sitting in the meeting."
And not Tom Brady.
"I just assume that he's not playing until they tell me that he's going to play," said the quarterback who sure could use his star Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Gronkowski has been sidelined while recovering from forearm and back surgery and participated on a limited basis in practice Wednesday. He practiced in full pads for the first time on Sept. 1 and has been regaining his strength. Meanwhile, the Patriots have won their first two games by a total of five points while Brady's rookie receivers have struggled to get to the spots where he's thrown the ball.
With receiver Wes Welker in Denver, tight end Aaron Hernandez in custody after pleading not guilty to first-degree murder and Gronkowski in the training room, the only healthy pass catcher Brady can rely on is five-year veteran Julian Edelman. He has 20 receptions. The rest of the team has 28. Danny Amendola has 10 of those and he's expected to miss his second straight game with a groin injury.
So that leaves Brady with three rookies — Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce — among his top four wideouts.
Dobson's first catch as a pro went for a touchdown, a 39-yarder with no one covering him on the Patriots' first series of last Thursday night's 13-10 win over the New York Jets. Later, though, Dobson had several drops.
Brady knows it will take time for the veteran and the rookies to develop a trust.
"It goes both ways," he said. "It's them trusting me that I'm going to put the ball in a position for them to catch up and not get hit so they can do things full speed and not worry about if I'm throwing them into something. It's just a lot of work. It's just a lot of repetition.
"You've just got to put the work in and you've got to put the time in, and we've been doing certainly a lot of that. I can't remember a year where we've spent as much time together as we've spent since the spring and it's going to pay off at some point."
It would help if Brady had Gronkowski, of course.
"It's a little tough," Dobson said, "Whatever situation we're in, we've just got to keep improving."
So does the two-time MVP quarterback.
"The burden's on all of us," Brady said. "It's not the receiver position. It's the quarterback position, most importantly. That's what I need to focus on. The better I am out there, the better we're going to be as an offense."
Gronkowski is upbeat about his progress during the past three weeks.
"Oh, big time, definitely," he said, "just progressing every single week, progressing significantly since last week and that's all I can ask for."
He had 42 catches for 10 touchdowns as a rookie in 2010, then was chosen for the Pro Bowl the next two seasons when he totaled 145 catches for 2,117 yards and 28 touchdowns. He also scored on a run in 2011.Comment on this story
But he missed five games after breaking his left forearm last Nov. 18 against the Indianapolis Colts, then rebroke it in the AFC divisional win over the Houston Texans that forced him to miss the AFC title game loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
Gronkowski played two years at Arizona then missed the 2009 season after back surgery. Being away from the game this year makes him appreciate it more.
"This just isn't my first time I've been injured and missed some games," he said. "You appreciate the game big time. ... You're just dying and itching to get back out there."
So, Gronk, when will that be?
"When it's go time, it's go time," he said. "I've got to be ready mentally and physically when my number's called."