Tight end Rob Gronkowski was a game-time decision Sunday night against the Packers with back and ankle injuries. Ultimately, he didn’t play, sending Patriots fans into a panic and moving the point spread a full point in the Packers’ direction.
Of course, there was no panic in the Patriots locker room, which had its contingency plan ready. The Patriots rolled the Packers without Gronkowski, 31-17.
“Look, it’s part of the game. That comes up pretty regularly,” coach Bill Belichick said on a conference call Tuesday. “Obviously, with a position like Rob’s, who is on the field a lot and a key part of the game plan, it’s a little bit harder.
“Every team goes through it, but those adjustments are one of the challenges that you face every week.”
It was the second time in three weeks that the Patriots won big with Gronkowski sitting out as a game-time decision. In Week 7, they beat the Bears, 38-31, overcoming an early 17-7 deficit to move the ball at will.
“I don’t think it’s as dramatic as sometimes people make it out to be and sometimes it sounds,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said of having contingency plans. “That’s just the nature of the business, and our coaches do a great job of preparing our players for multiple scenarios like that, and our players do a tremendous job of being ready to go.”
The Patriots always want Gronkowski in the lineup, but playing without him isn’t the death knell it used to be, or at least was perceived to be. The best example is the 2014 AFC Championship game loss at Denver, when Tom Brady had no weapons other than receiver Julian Edelman, and the Patriots sputtered to a 26-16 defeat.
But the Patriots have built enough depth the last few years to withstand Gronkowski’s injuries. In the 34 games he has missed over the last seven seasons (playoffs included), the numbers don’t fall off much.
Since the start of the 2012 season, when Gronkowski suffered his first significant injury, the Patriots are 67-19 (.779) with him in the lineup and 26-8 (.765) without him. They have scored 30.5 points per game with him and 27.8 points without him. They made two Super Bowls with him, winning in 2014 and losing in 2017, but they won one without him, too, in 2016.
|With Gronkowski||Without Gronkowski|
|Record||67-19 (.779)||26-8 (.765)|
|Points per game||30.5||27.8|
|Postseason||7-2 (won SB XLIX, lost SB LII)||4-2 (won SB LI)|
And more recently, the Patriots have barely flinched when Gronkowski is injured. They are 14-1 without Gronk since the start of the 2016 season, including an 11-0 mark in 2016.
This year, they’re 2-0 and averaging 34.5 points per game (though the defense and special teams have each scored a touchdown) without him. And the Patriots are actually converting a higher rate of red zone opportunities without him than with him (67 percent to 64).
Belichick credited McDaniels and his staff for preparing for all scenarios each week, but gave equal compliments to the players for adjusting so well without Gronkowski.
Edelman and running back James White have been reliable targets, and receivers Josh Gordon, Chris Hogan, and Cordarrelle Patterson have picked up the slack as well. Tight end Dwayne Allen hasn’t replaced Gronkowski’s receiving production, but his snap counts increased dramatically in both games.
“If we change a play or add a play or delete a play, they’re the ones that are really affected,” Belichick said of the players. “It’s relatively easy for a coach to look down on a sheet of paper and call one play instead of another.
“For the players to be able to make those adjustments and go to a new set of plays, or go to a different adjustment on a play because of the way the players are positioned due to availability, that’s harder on the players, and there are some other effects, too.
“Without Rob, Dwayne plays more on offense, which then Dwayne maybe is playing a little less in the kicking game, which then affects somebody that would play in his spot there and so forth. Again, you go through it every week.”
The Patriots obviously love having Gronkowski in the lineup. Other than Gordon, Gronkowski is the only other big target on the roster. He has an incredible rapport with Brady and still makes acrobatic catches in tight coverage, even against double teams. In the seven games Gronk has played this year, he has appeared in 93 percent of the snaps.
Gronk still commands double teams, and opens up the field for his teammates. His stats are down by his standards, but still decent enough: 29 catches for 448 yards, though only one touchdown.
But the Patriots are certainly used to him being a game-time decision. Over his nine-year career, Gronkowski has appeared on the injury report for 55 of the Patriots’ 156 total games (he has played in 122 career games) and was on injured reserve for another 14 of them. He has been on the report for injuries to his forearm, back, hip, hamstring, knee, ankle, chest, groin, and thigh.
|Status||Number of games|
|Total||55 out of 122 career games played* (45 percent)|
|Injury||Time spent on injury report|
|Forearm||20 weeks (2012, 2013)|
|Back||18 weeks (2013, 2015, 2018)|
|Hip||14 weeks (2012)|
|Hamstring||11 weeks (2013, 2016)|
|Knee||9 weeks (2014, 2015)|
|Ankle||8 weeks (2011, 2018)|
|Chest||2 weeks (2016)|
|Groin||1 week (2017)|
|Thigh||1 week (2017)|
Now he’s dealing with an ankle injury, and his chronic back injury flared up again three weeks ago, which is never a good sign considering he’s had three surgeries to fix it over the past 10 years. Gronkowski’s availability for Sunday’s game against the Titans is not known, but considering the Patriots have a bye the next week, it would not be surprising to see him sit again.
For the Patriots, Gronkowski is really more of a luxury than a necessity at this point. They’re more than happy to have him in the lineup, and use him on every snap that they can.
But they don’t need him the way they used to.
“If we have to adjust, I think the biggest thing that you can do when you have to do that is just you stay calm, and you know that this is what we have, and what we have is good enough,” McDaniels said.
“And our players do a tremendous job of being ready to go. They never flinch when that situation comes up, and they know that that’s part of their role and they accept that burden and they always rise to the occasion when they’re asked to.”