Rob GronkowskiThe Patriots being 3-0 has very little to do with their decision to hold out Rob Gronkowski for the fourth straight week.

Bill Belichick said as much himself in Friday’s press conference, typically his most honest and forthcoming of the week.

“We look at every week as pretty much a one-week season,” Belichick said. “We do what we can do that week to try to win. That’s what we try to do. I mean, sometimes there’s a point, like later on in the season, where things change a little bit, but we’re certainly not there yet. We’re going to try to go down there and play well against Atlanta. We’ll try to go out there and play well next week.”

New England is obviously trying to win every game they can. And beating the Bills, Jets and Buccaneers to start the season won’t change that. But the Patriots are not a reckless team. They know the games at the beginning of the season mean just as much as the ones at the end. But, of course, the games that matter most take place in January and February. And that is when the team will need Gronkowski the most.

If Gronkowski is brought back too early, as he was in Super Bowl XLVI and the AFC divisional playoff game against the Texans last season, it may mean the difference between having him for one measly game in September or October and for the entire season, including the playoffs. Gronkowski’s forearm has proven to be temperamental. One broken bone could equal two or three surgeries. And backs are nothing to mess with for any player, especially one that dropped to the second round and missed an entire college season because of an injury to it.

Gronkowski may look the part already. He may be running his usual speed and benching and squatting his usual weight. But if he doesn’t feel right yet (or “jacked” in Gronk speak), it’s not worth putting him on the field for a game New England may lose whether the tight end is on the field or not.

We’re still a long way from this point, but even if Gronkowski can’t come back until Week 7, it was still worth putting him on the active roster rather than the PUP list to start the season. Had Gronkowski started the season on PUP, he would have had restrictions on practicing. And those sessions Gronkowski has been participating in since Week 1 have been invaluable to his progress.

The only argument for keeping Gronkowski on the PUP list to start the season would start and end with the extra player the Patriots could have kept in his stead. Well, the Patriots released over 30 players to get down to 53 to start the season (and more since). Every single player passed through waivers, meaning New England had the chance to re-sign them (as they did with Marquice Cole, James Develin, Leon Washington and Matthew Mulligan) or add them to the practice squad (Josh Kline, Kanorris Davis, Justin Green, A.J. Francis and more). So who’s this mysterious player the Patriots could have kept on the active roster over Gronkowski?

Veterans Justin Francis, Jermaine Cunningham, Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells and Ras-I Dowling are still out there. So are Tim Tebow, Quentin Sims and George Winn. The Patriots have deemed many players to be expendable since the beginning of the season. Roster spots have opened and closed. Gronkowski hasn’t been taking anyone’s spot.

When Gronkowski comes back, he should be ready for the long haul. And that includes a near full share of snaps in his first game. If Gronkowski could only play limited snaps in his season debut, is he really ready to play? Shouldn’t he be able to come back and play a full game if he’s healthy?

So, if there are folks out there criticizing Gronkowski or the Patriots, stop. Gronkowski isn’t a wuss because he wants to get healthy before playing. And the Patriots are not babying their start tight end by keeping him out of games. Every game matters, just as Belichick said. But they’re not more important than the ones that will come in early 2014. And those are the ones in which Gronkowski will be most valuable.

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