Every week SB Nation asks its football sites a question to see how each team responds. This week’s question: Who is the one player that your team can’t afford to lose? After the New England Patriots lost to the Miami Dolphins, it’s clear that there’s one correct answer.
Tom Brady is the most important player on the Patriots, there’s no way around that. But that’s an easy and obvious answer so I won’t go further into the weeds. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is also an easy and obvious answer, but after the offense put together one of its most disappointing games in recent memory (and still scored 20 points?!), Gronkowski is also the right non-Brady answer.
The Patriots offense was 0 for 11 on third down, joining the 2014 Jacksonville Jaguars, 2015 Miami Dolphins, 2017 Indianapolis Colts, and 2017 Oakland Raiders as the only teams over the past five years to have zero third down conversions on 10+ attempts.
They went three-and-out five times and went three-and-interception twice. Their only two touchdown drives started at midfield with incredible field position. A wide receiver didn’t catch a football until 5 minutes into the third quarter. The running backs gained 25 yards on 10 carries.
All of this is connected to the absence of Rob Gronkowski, who was suspended for the game.
Gronkowski opens up the field for everyone. He draws the safety help away and allows Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan to get single coverage deep down the field. He is the best blocking tight end in the NFL and creates lanes for the running backs. He can run up the seams and open up pockets underneath for Danny Amendola. He’s also pretty good at making impossible catches on a regular basis and Brady missed having a player like that on Monday night.
The Patriots clearly missed Kyle Van Noy and Trey Flowers on the defensive side of the ball, and the mid-game loss of Alan Branch certainly didn’t help the defensive front seven. But 10 of the Dolphins points came on drives that started around midfield because of interceptions; that’s the difference in the game and that’s because Tom Brady was throwing up prayers down the field.
Brady needs Gronkowski to feel comfortable on the field right now because Julian Edelman isn’t walking through the locker room to suit up for next week’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Gronkowski settles down Brady and, as a result, settles down the offense.
I feel like Gronkowski is undervalued because of how the team succeeded without him in 2016. But he’s the most important non-Brady player on the Patriots and it’s not even close.