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Rob Gronkowski's season is over, but questions remain

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Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was officially placed on injured reserve Saturday, ending any hope that the key cog in the team's offense might make a late playoff cameo.

Instead of fighting to get back by the AFC Championship game or the Super Bowl, the team, Gronkowski and his family opted for a long-term solution.

Get away, get fully healthy, get back for 2017.

But the finality of Gronk's situation this season did little to quell questions.

His surgery Friday, a successful one performed by Dr. Robert Watkins in California, was his third to repair a herniated disc. While some debate his future status with the team -- the Patriots absolutely plan for him to be on the team in 2017 and beyond -- it's clear Gronk's future just got very difficult and very complicated.

Gronkowski herniated his L5-S1 disc while in college in 2009, his L4-5 disc in 2012, and the latest discectomy is almost certainly a reherniation of the L5-S1 disc, given the tingly feeling he experienced through his back and legs. That feeling is why Gronk knew something was wrong immediately and took himself out of the game against the Jets.

Gronkowski's injury is not likely to be career-ending. But it might give him back pain and flare-ups through his career. He might have to play in pain. It also, according to a former Patriots doctor, could force him to have a very serious conversation before he returns to the field.

"Could he play again? Yes, definitely," said Dr. Thomas Gill, the Patriots' team doctor until 2014 and Director of the Boston Sports Medicine and Research Institute. "But he'll need to take a long hard look at it, talk to his family, his surgeon, his agent, discuss whether he wants to keep playing. That's a personal decision he'll need to reflect on. He'll need to work it out with his family."

Gill has not examined Gronkowski's most recent injury. But he does have years of experience doing so for current players and would-be players at the NFL Scouting Combine. Gill said he's not aware of a player who has had three spine surgeries that played for the Patriots.

"Not saying Gronk can't do it. Not saying he would be the first," Gill said. "But the first I'm aware of. In sports medicine, past performance is a predictor of the future."

Could he go the route of Richard Seymour, Deion Branch, and most recently, Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins? Not soon, at least.

The Patriots have never had trade talks for Gronkowski and they feel very strongly he'll be on their team in 2017 and future years. It's one reason that in their statement, they mention his "long-term interests" and noted they "look forward to his return to playing football for the New England Patriots."

That said, given his health situation, it's hard to imagine a trade happening soon at this point.

Then there is his contract. Agent Drew Rosenhaus and the team had contract extension talks this summer, but nothing came of it. He's currently playing on the back end of a six-year, $54 million extension -- and the team paid him $10 million in an option bonus before the season. He's on the hook for $24 million over the next three years.

His health situation might make it difficult for contract talks to occur soon, at least until he's deemed healthy. The team also views Martellus Bennett as a priority.

Either way, Gronk will focus on rehab. He potentially could've played in 6-8 weeks at the earliest but wouldn't have been himself for a few months. The team views J.J. Watt's reherniation as a cautionary tale and didn't want Gronkowski to follow suit.

Gronkowski could even start the preseason on the physically unable to perform list to be on the safe side. But by the time the season rolls around, he should have no issues.

As of now, this is certain: the Patriots will play the Rams on Sunday and every other opponent this season without one of their top players. And that reality is as painful as any.

Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet.

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