NEW ORLEANS — Four days before the Patriots drubbed New Orleans, 36-20, Saints coach Sean Payton accurately prophesied how Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski could impact the game. It didn’t matter.
Gronkowski torched the Saints secondary, producing six catches for 116 yards and a touchdown. Midway through the first quarter, Tom Brady and Gronkowski connected on the type of game-changing play Payton had identified as a possibility.
“I think his versatility is one of his biggest assets,” Payton said on Wednesday. “He is a big target and he has strong hands in traffic. The location throws that Tom does a great job with become challenging in regards to how you defend.”
Payton watched his scouting unfold right in front of him. Gronkowski ran a crossing route, but Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone was tight in coverage, forcing Brady to improvise. He bounced around the pocket, then threw an off-balance lob to Gronkowski downfield. At the point of the release, Gronkowski hadn’t cut off his route, but Brady’s pass directed him to the open field.
Gronkowski adjusted, hauled in the pass, evaded an oncoming safety, and high-stepped into the end zone.
“We sort of made eye contact,” said Brady. “I think he saw me put some air underneath and I saw it was open behind him. If he does a wheel, then the linebacker doesn’t have any vision on me and it worked out like I hoped. I let it go, he turned, found it, caught it and ran. He’s a tough guy to tackle in the open field. It was a big play in the game.”
The 53-yard touchdown extended the Patriots’ lead to 13-0 less than 10 minutes into the game. It was his second third-down catch on consecutive drives. Gronkowski, who led the team with nine targets, dropped what would have been a 17-yard touchdown pass late in the second quarter, but his dominant performance was a reaffirming sight.
This past week, a scout surmised that Gronkowski may be “done” after supposedly losing his power and explosiveness, stirring a reaction around the NFL.
The comment came in response to Gronkowski’s lackluster opening performance. He caught two passes for 33 yards, despite playing 96 percent of the offensive snaps.
Gronkowski put any such speculation to rest on Sunday. He may not be as explosive or nimble as he once was, but he still has game-changing ability in the open field, as seen on his long touchdown on Sunday.
“We need some more plays like that. Play breaks down, it’s not necessarily the first type of the route call where guys make adjustments, work hard on their routes, sit down and cover, find open space,” Brady said. “You make those type of plays and I think it hurts the defense pretty bad.”
Gronkowski’s performance ended sour as he exited late in the third quarter after being dragged down by two defenders. He suffered a groin injury, and not, apparently, the back injury that sidelined him for the final 11 games last season, including the entire postseason.
Gronkowski declined an interview after the game. When asked how he felt, however, he smiled and replied, “Fine.”
The Patriots can’t afford more attrition in their passing game after entering Sunday with only three healthy receivers. Two of them, Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan, removed themselves from Sunday’s game because of injuries, but they returned.
The only seasons Gronkowski has played in all 16 regular-season games came in his first two years in the league. He has played in only 71 percent of regular-season games since 2011, some of which he played sparingly due to injury.
Despite his injury-riddled career, Gronkowski has placed himself alongside the all-time greats at the position. He now has 24 100-yard receiving games, second all time among tight ends, trailing only Tony Gonzalez’s 31. Gronkowski’s 70 touchdowns are third all time for tight ends.
Given Gronkowski’s recently restructured contract, he has incentive to play through a minor injury. He will receive a raise if he plays in either 90 percent of snaps, records 80 catches, logs 1,200 yards, or is named to the All-Pro team. He has done all of that at least once in his career.
But as history has shown, it’s not a matter of Gronkowski’s capabilities. It’s a matter of his availability.