Tom Brady does a good job conducting the Patriots’ offense, but Rob Gronkowski makes it sing.
Gronkowski can open up holes in the run game. His mere presence can make it easier for Julian Edelman or Kenbrell Thompkins to find open space downfield. Knowing he’ll be back on the field will lead to sleepless nights for defensive coordinators.
Knowing he’ll be back on the field might even have Brady sleeping a bit more soundly.
This is not super-sizing his impact to match his super-sized frame.
Gronkowski is just that good.
“He changes everything,” says Greg Cosell, executive producer of “NFL Matchup” and a man who watches more NFL and college game film than nearly anyone on the planet.
At 6 feet, 6 inches, a playing weight near 270 pounds, an obsession with the weight room and a ridiculously low body-fat percentage, Gronkowski has long looked like a chiseled gridiron action hero.
‘He changes everything. Linebackers aren’t fast enough to keep up with him and he’s so much bigger than safeties.’
But after seven surgeries in less than 24 months, on his ankle, forearm, back, and most recently on his right anterior cruciate ligament, Gronkowski is borderline bionic.
Perhaps it’s fitting though, given that he can do for the Patriots offense what no human not named Brady can.
“In the pass game he changes everything because of what he dictates from a coverage standpoint. He changes everything in the run game, too, because he’s a good blocker,” says Cosell. “Linebackers aren’t fast enough to keep up with him and he’s so much bigger than safeties. He’s 270 and he moves really, really well. How are you going to defend Gronkowski and have bodies available in run defense?”
An AFC source offered more on what makes Gronkowski so valuable.
“When he’s not out there, they don’t have a tight end. I don’t care who they put out there, when he’s not there, they don’t have a tight end,” the source said. “If you put someone in there that’s not him, [defenses] are not worried about that tight end running a 2-yard drag or a quick outlet, but when Gronk is out there, they’re worried.
“You have to be disciplined — is it pass or run? If it’s run, he’s a darn good blocker. If it’s pass, he can run all the routes, so defensively you’re going to have to double-team him, the D-end has to get a hand on him, which slows his pass rush. The linebacker has to be strong in coverage, and if it’s a safety, he’s going to beat him with his size or his speed. If you put a corner on him, Brady is smart enough to check to a run.
“He and Brady make the offense go for everyone else. Gronk can get Edelman open, he can get [Danny] Amendola open. Based on the formation, based on the play, he can get those guys open. When he’s on the field, he’s a difference-maker.”
After sitting out the first six games of the 2013 season as he waited for his troublesome left arm to completely heal from four procedures, Gronkowski made his triumphant return in October, against the Jets.
Up to that point, the offense had struggled, uncharacteristic for a unit that seemingly had been able to score at will for much of the previous six years.
Wes Welker was gone, and in his place were Amendola and three rookies, all of them having their own issues getting on the field and getting in synch with Brady.
Without Gronkowski, the Patriots were averaging just 20.8 points per game and Brady had completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes in four of six games, unheard of for one of the most accurate passers the league has ever seen. The Patriots were getting inside the red zone but not finishing those drives at a high enough clip.
And then Gronkowski returned.
He wasn’t able to change everything. The Patriots’ third-down conversion rate actually got worse — a dreadful 3 for 22 against the Jets and Dolphins in back-to-back weeks — but things got better, and the offense got moving again.
The red-zone touchdown rate shot up. Points per game increased. Brady’s completion percentage improved.
And just as everything got rolling, just when the Patriots became a top-10 offense again, Gronkowski was gone, cut down by one decisive blow.
ACL tears are not nearly as devastating as they once were. Time was, an ACL reconstruction meant the end of a player’s career. Then a one-year recovery became the norm. Now, players are back on the field in a matter of months. They may not be 100 percent the moment they return, but they’re close.
The Patriots and Gronkowski have been deliberate in his rehabilitation. During the early days of training camp, he did mostly individual drills before he progressed to 7-on-7 work, then full team work in full pads. He was never tackled to the ground and he didn’t play in a preseason game, but he said he is good to go (“I’ll be playing,” he said Monday) for the season opener against Miami.
Gronkowski did a lot of work with Brady, grunting as he ran routes, cutting just where he was supposed to, but midway through camp, star cornerback Darrelle Revis joined the quarterback and tight end — sticking with the hero theme, reporters jokingly called the trio the Super Friends — giving Gronkowski someone to bump him a little bit as he came off the line.
That it was Revis and not a safety such as Devin McCourty or a linebacker such as Jamie Collins may have been deliberate.
“Bill [Belichick] knows that teams are going to try to put corners on him,” the AFC source said. “He knows they’re going to put their best corner on him, Denver is going to try to put [Aqib] Talib on him, like when Bill did that against the Saints,” having Talib shadow tight end Jimmy Graham.
At best, cornerbacks will be giving up 4-5 inches and 50-60 pounds to Gronkowski, but the tactic has merit.
“He has such a value in the pass game, you’d rather have a corner on him to try to stop the pass game than put a safety on him,’’ the source said. “When the Patriots played the Saints, Bill would rather put a corner [on Graham] and stop the pass game, because nothing else matters.”
At his best, Gronkowski is the most complete tight end in the game. But his tour de force 2011 season seems long ago now, after all the injuries and surgeries.
Amendola is healthy again, and the rookies are no longer rookies. But to make the offense work, the Patriots need Brady and their bionic man.