Farewell to Gronk: What does his future hold?

Farewell to Gronk: What does his future hold?
December 9, 2013, 11:30 am
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There are many angles from which to look at the play that ruined Rob Gronkowski’s season, and each one leaves Patriots fans and the entire organization feeling like they just took a Gronk spike to the gut. And the groin. And the heart. And just about every inch of the human body. The whole thing stings like a swarm of roided-out wasps and even the Pats’ eventual victory, the most unlikely comeback in a season full of them, served as nothing more than a heavy dose of endorphins, masking the pain until reality set in.
The reality is that Gronkowski is gone. For the second (and pretty much third) straight season, Tom Brady will be without his most important weapon at the most important time. And that’s where any conversation surrounding this injury has to start.
Do the Pats still have a chance?
Instinct says no. The second T.J. Ward flew into the picture and turned Gronk’s right leg into a piece of overcooked spaghetti, it sure felt like the season ended right there on the 35-yard line. Like it ended before Gronk even hit the ground.
After all, we spent six long weeks watching the offense struggle in his absence. They ranked 17th in the NFL with 20.8 points a game. Just in general, it was so depressing. The stale play calling. The nothing drives. The clueless rookies. Brady throwing passes everywhere but into his receivers hands and treating Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce like he caught them passing SnapChats of Gisele’s cleavage.  
Not coincidentally, the offense came to life when Gronkowski returned to the field. Heading into Sunday, the Pats had averaged 35.8 points and 473.3 yards a game over the last five. In that span, they were the No. 1 offense in football. Five points better than the Broncos.
Over the last four games, Tom Brady had once again become “Tom Brady.” He completed more than 70 percent of his passes and averaged 361 yards a game with 10 touchdowns (one more than he’d thrown over the first eight games combined) and only two interceptions. Shane Vereen was back and as dynamic as advertised. For the first time in his career, for reasons other than the color of his skin, Julian Edelman was almost worthy of the Welker comparisons. Danny Amendola was somewhat of a forgotten man, but reliable and, most importantly, healthy.
The rookies all struggled through injuries. Dobson (foot) and Thompkins (hip) were both scratched from Sunday’s game. Boyce missed five of the previous seven games before that. But when they’re out there, the rookie tag no longer fit. Not the way it did during Brady’s tantrum days. He trusts them now. And for the last six weeks, their maturity, and the growth of the offense on a whole had been grounded in the foundation provided by Rob Gronkowski. The best tight end in football. The focal point of every opponent’s defensive scheme.
I’m not sure there’s another player in this league who causes more headaches and sleepless nights in the week leading up to a game or one who draws more attention in the actual game. Once he’s out there, Gronk catches anything near the numbers and anywhere else within a three-foot radius. His stats were solid this year. He averaged 6.2 catches for 93.3 yards a contest. He’d caught four touchdowns, with one coming in each of the last four games. But those numbers don’t truly capture the Gronkowsi Effect. They don’t take into account how often he’s used as a decoy. How the mere sight of him streaking across the field can turn an entire defense to mush. It doesn’t factor in his dominant blocking or just his overall dominance. He’s everywhere. He goes sideline to sideline in what feels like two steps. He manhandles linebackers with his strength and burns defensive backs with his speed, even though that’s not how it’s supposed to work.
He’s an absolute freak.
But now he’s gone.
The optimistic side will tell you that the Pats were still 5-1 without Gronk this year, but that argument doesn’t consider the other side of the ball. That while Gronk was out, Vince Wilfork was in, Jerod Mayo was in, Tommy Kelly was and Aqib Talib had fully functioning hips. Over the first six games, the Pats allowed an average of only 16.2 points. The highest single game total was the 27 they gave up to Drew Brees and the Saints.
Heading into Sunday, the Pats had given up an average of 27.3 points in the six games since Gronk’s return. His arrival and their demise had nothing to do with each other, but that number accurately demonstrates the state of the Pats D. Yesterday, they knocked that 27.3 average down a tick by holding the Browns to only 26 points, but those Browns also came to Foxborough boasting the league’s 28th ranked offense.
Bottom line: The Pats defense is no longer built to win the way it did back in September and October. They can’t stop the run. They’ve actually been all right against the pass, ranking 10th in the league with 224 yards allowed per game. But they’ve also faced the seventh fewest pass attempts as a result of all the fun opponents are having on the ground. And either way, at this moment, no one in New England’s oozing with confidence over the Patriots secondary. Maybe if both Talib and Alfonso Dennard are healthy, but that feels like a stretch. And with the way this season’s gone, who knows who the football gods will strike down between now and Week 18. It won’t be a shock when someone accidentally drops a 100-pound dumbbell on Devin McCourty’s foot or a gust of wind knocks over the goal post and sends it crashing onto Chandler Jones’ head.
But while the defense has taken a few hits, the Gronkless offense is certainly in a better place than it was three months ago. Even if no one will confuse Vereen, Edelman, Amendola, Thompkins, Dobson and Boyce with the 2007 Patriots, this is a core that will find a way to score. They’re a team now. They finally trust each other. They have an identity. They proved that in the fourth quarter against Cleveland.
They should also give Stevan Ridley one more chance. I know. But really. It’s easy to forget this now, but last year Ridley had the sixth most carries in the NFL. He finished third in rushing touchdowns (12) and seventh in rushing yards (1263), while averaging more yards per carry (4.1) than guys like Arian Foster and LeSean McCoy. By any measure known to man, he was one of the best running backs in the game. The Pats need that again. Did he fumble? Sure. Four times. Same number as Marshawn Lynch and Alfred Morris. One fewer than Jamaal Charles and only one more than Foster, Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson.
In other words, carry the ball enough times in the NFL, and you’re going to lose a few fumbles. And obviously, Ridley’s done that again this year. He’s lost four. The last two in unforgivable fashion during an insanely crucial games.
But it’s time to forgive him.
Ridley was a healthy scratch last week in Houston. He was eased back in a little yesterday with eight carries (for 38 yards). But without Gronk, there’s no more easing. No holding him back. With Ridley in his former role, keeping the defense honest, the Pats can play Vereen more at receiver. Spread him out with Amendola, Edelman and the rookies. Keep the offense moving and let Brady go to work.
Is there a chance that Ridley fumbles? Yup. There always is. People fumble. It’s not ideal, but when a player can do what he can do, and a team is in the position that the Pats currently are, you deal with it. And for the most part this year, New England has. They’re 3-1 in the four games that Ridley’s fumbled, and might be undefeated if not for the refs picking up the flag after Luke Kuechly abused Gronk in the end zone.
Ah, Gronk.
I almost forgot. That’ll happen. We see players hurt every week in the NFL. We watch them limp off the field or ride out on the back of a cart, and the moment they disappear it’s out of sight out of mind. There’s no choice. Little to no time to grieve or pour one out for fallen brothers. You can be sure the Pats didn’t leave the locker room last night without coming together, recognizing Gronk’s injury and just as quickly moving on. Maybe not in their hearts, but certainly in their heads. They have to. We all do.
When the season ends, whenever and wherever that is, all that will change. No. 87’s recovery will be the most obsessed over storyline of the Patriots offseason. But in the meantime, once again, Gronk is on the backburner.
He’s done. Another injury. Another surgery. Another season cut short. And at this point, what can I even say? I feel awful for him.
For all the crap he gets for his life outside of football, no one can question how much he loves the game. How much he gives on the field. How much he adds to the whole Boston sports fan experience. Athletes like Gronk don’t come around very often. And now the fear, more so than ever, is that he’ll be taken from us too soon. That the guy who seemed destined to become one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history will instead be remembered as a cautionary tale. A harsh reminder of how brutal this game really is and that it takes far more than talent to have a legendary NFL career.
Why does this keep happening? Bad luck certainly plays a role. The changing face of the NFL rulebook undoubtedly affected what happened yesterday. Some will argue that his size is a factor, too. That a player as big as Gronk is bound to take a majority of his hits down low, from awkward angles, and is more susceptible to injuries like the one suffered on Sunday.
Then again, Tony Gonzalez is 6-5 and missed two games in 17 years. Antonio Gates is 6-4 and been one of the league most consistent tight ends for 11 years. The most common Gronk comparison is Jimmy Graham, who at 6-7 has an inch on Gronkowski, but while Graham’s experienced his share of bumps and bruises, he’s only missed two games in four seasons.
If anything, it’s probably the combination of Gronk’s size and mentality. All those other guys are former basketball players. You throw Gonzalez (at least in his younger days), Gates or Graham in the open field and there’s a certain finesse about them. They’re out there trying to avoid hits. Which, by the way, is sort of the point. On the other hand, Gronkowski is a football player in every sense of the word. He’s not looking to avoid your hit, he wants to hit you. And the vision of him running at full speed, ball in hand, will instill fear in anyone. Certainly anyone in the secondary. The anticipation of this rumbling rhinoceros makes a player feel helpless and desperate. And desperate men do desperate things.
On Sunday, that resulted the most gruesome and devastating injury of the Patriots season. And now, the team and this city has lost one of its biggest stars. One of the most skilled, charismatic and entertaining players to come through Boston in years. Gronk leaves such an enormous void in so many different ways, both in our perception of the present and hope for the future.
How many hits can he take? At what point will the next injury be one too many?
We’ll be asking those questions about Gronkowski from now until Week 1 of next season and beyond. But for the next two months, we’ll be asking those same questions about the Patriots. The same questions we’ve asked for the last three months.
How many hits can they take? When will the next injury be one too many?
After yesterday, “when” certainly feels like “now.” No one will be surprised if Gronkowski’s ACL/MCL is the straw that breaks Lombardi’s back.
Either way, the Pats now have three games to figure out how they’re going to do this, and then another three games to prove everyone wrong.
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