Although New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is expected to play in Super Bowl XLVI with a high ankle sprain, the nature of the injury itself leaves questions over whether he will be able to play with his accustomed effectiveness as both a receiver and blocker against a ferocious New York Giants defense.
Statistically, Gronkowski had one of the greatest seasons of any tight end in NFL history, and therefore the left high ankle sprain he suffered in the AFC Championship game against Baltimore has justifiably taken center stage among the Super Bowl's storylines. Gronkowski injured the ankle in the third quarter on a tackle by Ravens safety Bernard Pollard and was sidelined briefly before returning to finish out the game. Gronkowski has been in a walking boot since.
The recovery time from ankle injuries is notoriously slow due to the complex nature of the joint itself. The tibia, fibula, and talus bones make up the ankle joint. These three bones are bound together by the joint capsule and surrounding ligaments. Due to the force and torque applied to his leg when tackled by Pollard, Gronkowski suffered an injury to the syndesmotic ligaments of the ankle, more commonly known as a high ankle sprain.
The syndesmotic ligaments are responsible for holding the lower ends of the tibia and fibula (lower leg bones) together. Injuries to these ligaments are usually more serious than to other areas of the ankle, causing significant pain and difficulty bearing weight. The severity of and prognosis for recovery for ankle sprains are often a source of confusion, primarily due to misunderstanding over what exactly the different "grades" of sprains actually mean. In brief:
- A Grade 1 sprain is a mild sprain that occurs when there is slight stretching and some damage to the fibers of the ligament. Individuals can usually place pressure on the foot and walk afterward.
- A Grade 2 sprain is a moderate sprain where a partial tearing of the ligament occurs. If the ankle joint is examined and moved in certain ways, abnormal looseness (laxity) of the ankle joint occurs.
- A Grade 3 sprain is a severe sprain in which a complete tear of the ligament occurs. If the examiner pulls or pushes on the ankle joint in certain movements, gross instability occurs.
A Grade 1 sprain, the type Gronkowski most likely suffered, could require anywhere from 1-4 weeks of recovery time; a Grade 2 or 3 sprain, in which there is some degree of looseness of the ankle joint, could take longer and even require surgery if the tear is complete.
Assuming Gronkowski suits up on Sunday, the biggest concerns will be pain tolerance and whether there is worsening ankle swelling, both of which would significantly impair the joint's range of motion and strength. This is the type of injury that is difficult enough for running backs and receivers to play through, but with Gronkowski's responsibilities as a tight end including a significant amount of blocking as well, it may not be possible for him to play at the All-Pro level he attained during the regular season. If the Patriots' devastating 1-2 punch of Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez at TE is not at full force, the Giants may be able to risk blitzing more frequently and leaving fewer men in coverage, which could spell trouble for theNew England offense.