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Analysis: Gronk loss tough in so many ways

New England reportedly will be without All-Pro tight end due to another back injury.

Patriots fans had already been pondering Rob Gronkowski's injury history when the bomb dropped today, word coming out early this afternoon that the All-Pro tight end is to undergo surgery to repair a ruptured disc in his back.

The details of the injury and the timeline of his potential return are a fluid situation.

One thing that's certain at this point is the latest major injury to New England's oft-injured superstar is a punch in the proverbial gut to the team and its fan base.

On the field, the loss immediately removes Tom Brady's most important weapon heading down the home stretch toward what is supposed to be another Super Bowl run.

Forget the dream two-tight end sets of the offseason with Martellus Bennett (who's been clearly limited with his own ongoing ankle injury), now the question is whether the Patriots have a championship cast of healthy characters.

Forget the ongoing storyline surrounding the defense turmoil after the trades of Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins combined with the demotions of Logan Ryan and Jabaal Sheard.

Nope, for better or worse the offense is very much the back in the spotlight, only for all the wrong, most disappointing reasons.

Bill Belichick may have told CBS in a halftime interview in New York last Sunday that the team is "used to" playing without Gronkowski, but the reality of that life moving forward remains uncertain.

At this point the Patriots remain tied with the Raiders at 9-2 for the best record in football, currently holding the No. 1 seed in the AFC postseason via tiebreaker. But every game moving forward just got more difficult. Moving the ball, scoring points and winning games is easier with Gronkowski in the mix. It's been that way since the day he landed in New England.

But word of Gronkowski having to undergo the third back surgery of his football career strikes a far deeper chord the upcoming games on the schedule. It's bigger than wins and losses.

Gronkowski is a Hall of Fame talent, maybe the best tight end to ever play the game. He's a touchdown machine who changes his offense by his mere presence, never mind his playmaking.

But for all his god-like greatness, he's just as much known for his injury history that includes ankle, knee, back, chest, hamstring and arm injuries, among less notable ailments over the years.

Seven years into his career, despite the determination, toughness, work ethic and drive that have allowed him to always return form injury to his spot atop the NFL, Gronkowski looks more and more mortal by the year, week and day.

Gronkowski has been a force of positivity on the field and off since arriving in New England. He's a captain, leader, playmaker and a charitable mainstay in Patriots Nation.

He's given all he had on and off the field and taken a hellacious beating for it.

Gronkowski's future, like that of his team's this fall, is uncertain. How long can he continue to battle back from injury and surgery? The calendar says he'll turn 28 next May, but the scars from his football battles may tell a different age.

Belichick's team will look to once again employee its next-man-up mentality this week against the Rams and beyond. But the difference between Gronkowski and the next man is a massive divide.

Gronkowski will work as hard as humanly possible to return. That's what he does. But it's not unreasonable to wonder if the tight end's best days are behind him. At some point there is only so much the human body can take from a sport that takes its pound of flesh and then some.

The man-child known as Gronk is one of the great all-time Patriots. But his sports story, like so many, is a balance between highs and lows. Bo Jackson, Tony C. and so many others never got the chance to reach peak achievements.

Gronkowski has a Super Bowl ring. He has records. He's made enough money for generations of his family to live off of.

His ridden the highs and returned from the lows.

Here's hoping he'll continue to do so.

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