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CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER

Imagine how much worse this would be if the Patriots had actually traded Gronk

Rob Gronkowski had four catches Sunday night, but the Lions mostly had him blanketed.
Rob Gronkowski had four catches Sunday night, but the Lions mostly had him blanketed. duane burleson/AP

As Tom Brady’s supermodel spouse once famously said following Super Bowl XLVI, her husband can’t throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time. Physics and football prevent Brady from performing this act. Yet, given the way the Patriots approached last offseason and their early-season stumbles, it appears this was their plan — for Brady to throw it to himself.

The Patriots offense sputtered into the breakdown lane in the Motor City Sunday night. Their drives went nowhere in a sobering 26-10 loss to old friend Matt Patricia and the Detroit Lions, New England’s second consecutive double-digit defeat. The offense looked impotent against a team that had allowed 78 points in its first two games.

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As bad as it was for Brady & Co. — and it was dreadful — it could have been worse if coach Bill Belichick had gotten his way this offseason and shipped away tight end Rob Gronkowski. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Sunday that the Patriots and Lions had reached agreement on a trade that would have sent Gronk to Detroit before the tight end spiked the deal by threatening to retire. Normally, devout Patriotologists would dismiss this as innuendo or conjecture, but Gronk himself confirmed it after the disheartening defeat in Detroit.

“Yeah, it happened,” said Gronk following a game in which Detroit devoted Secret Service-level attention to him. “Brady is my quarterback. That’s all. I wasn’t going anywhere without Brady.”

The plan to trade Gronk was more puzzling than the defeat. Belichick is one of the greatest defensive minds of all-time, but is he trying to stop his own quarterback? The Patriots stripped the passing attack of Danny Amendola (free agent departure) and Brandin Cooks (trade), and they were prepared to part with Gronk as well, which would have meant Brady’s three leading receivers from 2017 would have been expunged. This is unconscionable.

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In fairness, Belichick wasn’t banking on Brady’s buddy Julian Edelman missing the first four games of the season with a suspension for performance-enhancing drug use. But the offseason plan to pare pass-catchers was still dubious, given that Edelman is returning from a torn ACL. The Patriots should be maximizing Brady’s final years, not maximizing his degree of difficulty. No wonder Brady and Gronk were grumpy all offseason.

Even with an elite talent in Gronkowski, the Patriots currently have a paucity of options in the passing attack. Take him away — which teams are doing — and Brady is better off just passing to himself.

Weapons? What weapons?

The Lions had 14 first downs before the Patriots picked up their initial first down with 3:51 left in the first half. In the last two weeks, the Patriots are 6 for 21 on third down. New England’s 209 yards Sunday night constituted its 10th-lowest output since 2001 and fifth-worst since 2004. This is a level of offensive ineptitude we’re unaccustomed to seeing, and it could have been worse if Belichick had given Gronk a new NFL address.

With Gronk, Brady threw for just 133 yards against the previously winless Lions — his lowest total in five years for a game he finished. In the 2013 season finale against the Buffalo Bills, the Patriots had a run-heavy game plan on a soggy day at Gillette Stadium; Brady finished 14 of 24 for 122 yards. At least that was by design because of the conditions; this game was in a dome.

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When Brady was sacked on third and 8 with 11:44 left in the fourth quarter after searching in vain for an open receiver for what felt like the one-thousandth time, NBC announcer Al Michaels said, “That’s a coverage sack if I’ve ever seen one.” Analyst Cris Collinsworth chimed in and succinctly summed up the Patriots plight with Gronk drawing double-teams: “They don’t have many other options.”

Two plays before the sack, Brady got called for intentional grounding for launching a deep pass to no one. Two of those “other options,” wide receivers Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson, ended up in almost the exact same spot on the field, despite lining up on opposite sides of the formation. It’s unclear who was in the wrong spot. It’s quite clear that the Patriots are lacking in reliable receivers. (Dorsett failed to record a catch in five targets, and Brady threw a horrendous interception trying to get him the ball deep.)

The only solace is knowing how much worse it would be if instead of being Brady’s go-to-guy Gronkowski were gone. Sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make.

Perhaps the Patriots would have approached the offseason differently had they dealt Gronkowski. But ostensibly the blueprint was the same as 2006 and 2013: Take away one of Brady’s top targets, and ask him to do more with less. The idea being that if Brady is so great and ageless, he can prove it with pedestrian pass-catchers.

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On the same day that Brady was scrounging around for open receivers, Atlanta Falcons rookie wideout Calvin Ridley, selected three spots after the Patriots took offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn with the 23d pick, exploded for seven catches for 146 yards and three touchdowns in a loss to the New Orleans Saints.

During Brady’s tenure as franchise quarterback, the team has never used a first-round pick to select a wide receiver. Cooks was acquired in 2017 for a package that included a first-round pick. This year, the Patriots made no substantive attempt to address the position via the draft. The Patriots didn’t select a wide receiver until the sixth round when they picked Braxton Berrios, who landed on injured reserve.

Somehow, I don’t think that any of the top 15 quarterbacks in the league could make this current crew a high-octane offense. The Patriots have two avenues to generate big plays at this point — one is Gronkowski, the other is offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels scheming them up. That’s what he did on New England’s longest play of the night, a 19-yard screen pass to Rex Burkhead, who lined up in the slot as a wideout. It was the same story against Jacksonville.

The need for additional playmakers is as glaring as a neon sign at a Detroit casino. That’s why Belichick is willing to gamble on Josh Gordon. Edelman is a true No. 1 wide receiver in this system. He’ll help immensely. The Patriots have endured rough starts with personnel potholes before. They usually come out the other side in the AFC title game.

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But, right now, the offense is exposed.

Defenses are doing what Belichick intended to do in the offseason — take Gronk away from Brady. And the passing attack has nowhere else to go.


Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.