Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE
Can the Patriots offense be as effective as it has been without Rob Gronkowski?
I don't know what has gotten into me as of late, but the past few weeks has seen me surprisingly calm, open-minded, and rational.
Well, for me, at least.
For all intents and purposes, I should be freaking out right now. And this should really be a "Silencing Hank" article in which I unsuccessfully try to calm myself down over the team losing it's most dynamic playmaker with games against the Jets, Dolphins, 49ers, and Texans on the horizon. I should be seeing the phrase "4-6 weeks", assume that means 6, and wonder how the Patriots are going to bail themselves out of this one.
But surprisingly, I'm pretty OK with all of this.
Yes, I'm upset over the injury. Yes, I know that the team is better with Gronk in the lineup. And yes, I know that women region-wide are weeping openly as they scour closets, attics, and basements for their nurse outfits. I'd be foolish if I were to think that The Patriots aren't better with Gronk.
But I also know that the Patriots are going to be alright for a little while. And here's why.
Depth at tight end. The Patriots learned the hard way last year that not having a contingency plan for an injured Gronk will cause them to struggle in big games. Learning from those mistakes, New England went out and signed every available tight end that there was this past offseason and currently have five on the roster. I think it's safe to assume that the team kept all of these tight ends around for this exact reason, and Daniel Fells, Visanthe Shiancoe, and Michael Hoomanawanui have been preparing all season to fill in for Gronk should he go down. While none of these players have the physical tools and pure ability that Gronk has, I can guarantee you that they know the playbook as well as he does and will be able to fill in for him adequately. Plus, Aaron Hernandez is very close to returning, and Hernandez is just as much of a matchup nightmare as Gronkowski is. Most teams would be very, very happy to have just one tight end of either Herndo or Gronk's abilities, and that the team will essentially be swapping out one for the other bodes well down the stretch.
Multiple offensive weapons. While Gronkowski definitely creates the most mismatches for defenses, this offense does not run solely through him. Between Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Julian Edelman, Danny Woodhead, Stevan Ridley, and the army of tight ends, there is still a lot of talent to get the ball to. I wouldn't be surprised to see Deion Branch make a return to the team as well over the next couple of weeks, assuming his hamstring holds up. The bottom line is that as long as we have Tommy B under center making the decisions, this offense will continue to score points.
An effective ground game. Although Stevan Ridley didn't have the best game on Sunday, he has still been a highly effective runner and the Patriots ground game continues to be a strength of this team. Hopefully Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly will be returning soon, as their presence was missed in the smashmouth attack, but even without them, the Patriots are able to run the ball very well. And when you are running well, everything else falls into place. Obviously, not having Gronk in to block hurts the run game (as well as the playaction game), but both Fells and Shiancoe are very effective blockers, so the dropoff isn't as steep in that particular aspect.
Back in time for the playoffs. While a first round bye is still very much up in the air, the Patriots are in very good shape for hosting at least one home playoff game in January. The AFC East is weak enough so that 10 wins will secure you the division crown, and there is even a possibility that 9 wins will be enough to take it. At 7-3, New England is more than capable of winning at least 3 of their next six games, which will be enough to get them into the tournament. While Gronk could be back as early as Week 16, I see the team resting him for the rest of the regular season and bringing him back when the games really matter. If all goes well, that Week 17 game against Miami won't mean anything, and thus there won't be any reason to rush Gronk's return.
Gronk and Hernandez remain a mystery. There may be a lot of footage of The Boston TE Party from 2011, but so far this year the two haven't really been on the field at the same time. If all goes well and the Pats are able to unleash the two-headed TE attack in the postseason for what it essentially the first time, then opponents will have very little footage to go off of and that attack will in turn be even harder to defend. To be honest, the thought of saving putting Gronk and Hernandez on the field together until January is very appealing to me; the playoffs is when you need to play your best football and pull some tricks out of the playbook that nobody has seen yet. With Herndo and Gronk, odds are that the Pats have a lot of tricks stored up. And they'll be able to unleash them upon the league with two premier tight ends that will be rested, healthy, and eager to make up for lost time.