FOXBOROUGH — Running back Shane Vereen was asked Monday afternoon if he had thought much about what the Patriots offense will look like without Rob Gronkowski this time.
“No,” said Vereen, about 25 hours after Gronkowski suffered a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee, likely knocking him out for 8-12 months. “To lose a teammate and friend like Rob, it’s horrible.”
“You don’t replace a guy like Rob,” receiver Julian Edelman added.
The Patriots like to preach a “next man up” mantra, but there is no “next man” when it comes to Gronk. The idea of moving on without Gronkowski, arguably the best tight end in the league (and maybe of all time), isn’t easy to stomach.
Cleveland players used words like “gruesome” and “nasty” to describe the play, on which safety T.J. Ward drove himself helmet-first into Gronkowski’s perfectly locked leg, reducing the 6-foot-6-inch behemoth to shrieks of pain on the Gillette Stadium turf.
The Patriots offense also might look a bit gruesome without Gronkowski, who reenergized the team when he returned in Week 7 from forearm and back injuries. The Patriots averaged only 20.8 points per game in the first six weeks without him, then 32 points with him, and that wasn’t an accident. Gronk was unstoppable until his knee took a devastating blow.
The feel-good vibes and Super Bowl dreams throughout the Patriots facility after uplifting wins over the Steelers, Broncos, and Texans seem to have evaporated. The 10-3 Patriots have enough wins in the bank to claim the AFC East and perhaps lock up the No. 2 seed (although the Bengals, at 9-4 and with a head-to-head victory, appear to be coming on strong), but without Gronkowski, it’s hard to envision the Patriots being able to keep pace in a shootout with the Broncos, especially on the road, where the Patriots are only 3-3 this year.
The Patriots have a handful of players who can help fill Gronkowski’s snaps — fullback James Develin and tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui, Matthew Mulligan, and D.J. Williams, who was re-signed Monday to take Gronkowski’s roster spot. But none will fill Gronk’s role with the offense; the four have combined for 16 catches and one touchdown this year, compared with 39 catches and four touchdowns for Gronkowski in six-plus games.
“The other night, some of the stuff I was doing, I’ve never done before,” said Mulligan, who played a season-high 40 of the 83 offensive snaps, ran more pass routes than usual, and even tried to leap over Browns cornerback Joe Haden on his 15-yard reception. “Everybody’s going to have to pick up their game just a little bit more.”
Still, the Dolphins, Ravens, and Bills await, and they don’t feel a shred of sympathy for the Patriots.
Coach Bill Belichick struck the appropriate chord with his players Monday, showing compassion for Gronkowski but emphasizing that the Patriots can’t do anything but focus on the next opponent.
“It’s a fine line,” said Mulligan, a six-year veteran who is now with his sixth NFL franchise. “Obviously you want to be compassionate, because we are still human. But at the same time, the mark of a good team is to be able to pick up and forget about what just happened. There’s a job to be done, and they do a really good job of trying to focus on the task at hand, and that’s winning football games.”
And only those who haven’t paid attention this season would completely count the team out now with Gronk on the shelf.
They still have the most important piece in quarterback Tom Brady, who has masked some of the offense’s deficiencies all year. And they’re 10-3 despite losing Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Tommy Kelly, and Sebastian Vollmer for the season, and playing significant stretches without Danny Amendola, Vereen, Aqib Talib, and Alfonzo Dennard.
The coaching staff has a difficult problem to solve now in terms of figuring out how to make up for Gronkowski’s production, but it has been up to the task so far this season.
Sunday against Cleveland, the answer was to spread out the defense and go with more four- and five-wide sets. This helped open up the middle of the field for Vereen (12 catches, 153 yards) and Edelman (six catches, 64 yards, a touchdown, and a 2-point conversion), who once again find themselves as the unexpected focal points of the offense.
“Whoever is in there is going to have to fulfill some of those duties, but it may expand to more people,” Belichick said Monday. “Using more four-receiver sets instead of three receivers and a tight end, or something like that.
“Or it might result in the tight ends getting more plays, or some combination there. If we have to deal with it again, that will probably be something similar to what we’ve already dealt with this year.”
And adjusting to those early-season injuries to Gronk, Vereen, and Stevan Ridley may come in handy now. Rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins were forced into significant playing time, and shouldn’t be too doe-eyed when they return from injuries and are asked to play major roles again. Fellow rookie Josh Boyce finally made an impact Sunday, catching three passes for 49 yards and showing impressive moves to avoid defenders.
“It’s definitely good for guys to get experience,” said Edelman. “That’s how you learn the most in this league, and they’ve done well with it. Josh did a great job yesterday going in and doing things he hasn’t done, and being able to adapt when things are going crazy.”
With Gronk down, Vereen officially becomes the one player the Patriots can’t afford to lose the rest of the way (other than Brady, of course). Vereen is by far the most versatile player on offense, and the closest thing resembling Aaron Hernandez — able to line up in the backfield, in the slot, or split out wide. The Patriots didn’t have Vereen during their first Gronkless stint, and maybe his presence can keep the chains moving.
Vereen was nearly a one-man offense after Gronk went down — accounting for all 72 yards on the Patriots’ first touchdown drive, and catching four passes on their long TD drive late in the fourth. Vereen had 15 touches Sunday, 11 after Gronk was injured.
But the receivers and running backs may find the field a lot more condensed with Gronk out of the rotation. They won’t see so many single-teams, and moving the ball could become more of a grind.
The Patriots have no choice but to accept the challenge.
“Very tough-minded and determined group that, even though at times the deck has been stacked against us or it’s been things that we’ve had to overcome, they haven’t ever made any excuses or tried to back down from the challenge,” Belichick said.
“The attitude, the ability to go out there and fight and persevere and deal with whatever the circumstances are and not really get too fazed by it, but just try to deal with it, has been very impressive by the entire team this year.”Ben Volin can be reached at Ben.Volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.