Rob Gronkowski is slated to miss two months with a herniated disc in his back. Go ahead and axe the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl chances.
After a Week 12 victory over the New York Jets, the New England Patriots had to be feeling good. Yes, they played the Jets much closer than they should have. However, they escaped an AFC East rivalry game with a victory and sat at 9-2 because of it. The only concerning aspect was that tight end Rob Gronkowski left the game in the first half with a back injury. There was still comfort, though, as it was thought to be precautionary and that he’d be ready to roll going forward.
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That is no longer the case for the star tight end.
On Thursday, multiple outlets reported that Rob Gronkowski suffered a ruptured/herniated disc in his back that will require surgery. He will undergo surgery on Friday, but the injury is expected to keep him out for eight weeks (or around two months, depending on how you like to frame it).
At this point of the season, this is clearly not favorable news for the Patriots. They’re in control in the AFC East, but that timetable for Gronk’s return could potentially put him out through the Super Bowl, or returning just before. For a team that has the expectations of getting to the Big Game in Houston, that’s not a good sign.
However, the Patriots have suffered injuries before and survived nonetheless. After all, they have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, which heals many wounds. That said, this isn’t one they’re going to be able to heal. The Rob Gronkowski injury is going to derail the hopes they have for the 2016 NFL season.
Here are five reasons why the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl chances have ended with the Gronk injury.
Oct 9, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) runs with the ball as Cleveland Browns free safety Jordan Poyer (33) defends during the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
5. Simply, Gronk’s Production and Presence
When healthy and playing full games this season—not as a decoy—Gronkowski has been the monster that we expect him to be. Through the four-game stretch when he was healthy, the Patriots tight end put up 118.25 yards per game while also averaging 5.25 catches on 6.75 targets per game and scoring three total touchdowns. This isn’t breaking news to anyone, but Gronk is an unstoppable force in the Patriots offense when he’s healthy.
It’s also not a coincidence that the Patriots were at their most dominant over that four-game stretch when Gronk was at 100 percent. They won all four games by double digits with an average margin of victory of 16.25 points. For reference, the three games with Brady that Gronk was either put out of (Seahawks, Jets) or inactive for (49ers), the Patriots suffered a seven-point loss and beat two teams that will picking in the top 5 of the 2017 NFL Draft by an average margin of nine points.
Gronkowski is the tone-setter for this offense in every sense. If Brady wanted to throw the ball over the middle to a healthy Gronk on every play, chances are that it would work. He’s that good and that massive to where he always has the advantage. However, it’s also the way that type of presence opens up the rest of the offense that makes them so dangerous when he’s on the field. They aren’t going to have those numbers and that attention-grabber to open up the offense now. And as the quality of opponent increases heading into the postseason, that could spell trouble.
Oct 9, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett (88) during warmups before the game against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Patriots won 33-13. Mandatory Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports
4. Martellus Bennett Has Disappeared
Coming into the season and over the first four games while the Patriots were playing without Tom Brady, there was a great deal of chatter about the role of Martellus Bennett and how he could revolutionize the offense. What’s more, he was also highly productive whenever Gronk was also out of the lineup, putting up big numbers. There was talk about how he and Gronkowski could take the Pats offense to heights not seen since Gronk and [redacted]were running the two-tight end offense to perfection.
However, the decline in Bennett’s production and consistency have been noticeable with and without Gronkowski in the lineup. After topping 100 yards receiver twice in his first four games (all without Brady) and having four touchdowns through five games, Bennett has been a non-factor most times out. He’s been over 48 yards receiving just once in his past six outings and has zero touchdown catches over that span. What’s more, the past two games where Gronk was either out or limited have seen Marty B amass just a combined four catches on seven targets for a paltry 36 yards.
Could Brady start targeting Bennett more now that Gronkowski is out of the offense? Yes. In fact, I’d expect that to be the case despite what the last two weeks have shown. That being said, Bennett hasn’t been the weapon consistently that he was receiving a ton of hype for being at the start of the year. He’s been downright forgettable as of late. And now that he needs to step up and perform in a critical role for the Patriots down the stretch of the regular season and in the playoffs, that’s a major issue.
Oct 30, 2016; Orchard Park, NY, USA; New England Patriots defensive end Jabaal Sheard (93) against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
3. The Defense Was Already an Issue
Admittedly, this factor isn’t wholly related to Gronkowski and his impact on this team directly. However, it’s worth noting that the Patriots’ chances of winning a Super Bowl were already in jeopardy this season due to the state of their defense. This could very well be the least inspiring overall defensive group in New England that we’ve seen in the past few years. They have given up points to most opponents that they’ve played, but have simply been able to outscore them for the most part.
According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots rank just 21st in DVOA (which measures a “team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent,” per their website). through the first 12 weeks of the season. That puts them in essentially the bottom-third of the league in regards to defensive efficiency. Yes, that is not a good look for a Super Bowl contender.
As stated earlier, the lack of Gronkowski in the lineup makes the offense less explosive and productive. Considering that the last three weeks for the Patriots defense has seen them give up 17-or-more points to the Seattle Seahawks (which is fine), San Francisco 49ers (not fine), and New York Jets (also not fine), having a less explosive offense to help account for their defensive shortcomings is going to prove to be a fatal flaw of this New England defensive unit.
November 27, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) celebrates a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers during the fourth quarter at Oakland Coliseum. The Raiders defeated the Panthers 35-32. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
2. Increased Parity Atop AFC
This is yet another factor that was already in play prior to the injury, but remains a huge factor after. At the start of the season, there were teams in the AFC having success along with the Patriots and keeping pace with their start. However, that type of early-season success was simply discredited as hot-starts by flawed teams that would drop-off. Well, we’re entering the 13th week of the 2016 season and some haven’t dropped off. In fact, there are now even more teams in the mix.
When you look at teams such as the Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos, and even the Miami Dolphins, you’re talking about teams with seven-or-more wins through 12 games and with established identities. These teams aren’t just scraping by and making things up as they go along. Instead, they enter each week knowing how they want to play the game and then execute it.
Despite the fact that the Patriots not winning a Super Bowl last season, there is such an increased level of parity atop the AFC in comparison to recent years. Would you really be shocked if any of the aforementioned quartet of teams knocked off the Patriots with Gronkowski healthy? I don’t think it would be that mind-blowing to imagine. Hell, I’d even say that the absence of Gronk would even open the door for someone like the Tennessee Titans to sneak into the postseason and catch the porous Patriots defense off-guard in a playoff upset.
All that is to say that the Patriots weren’t head and shoulders above the rest of the AFC to begin with. And without their biggest weapon, that’s even more so the case.
Oct 16, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) congratulates tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) on a touchdown during the third quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports
1. Patriots’ Mental Edge Now Less Devastating
If you’re a defensive player facing the fully healthy New England offense, it’s hard to quantify the mental toll that takes before they take their first snap. Knowing that you are going to have to stop the greatest quarterback of all-time (Tom Brady) and the most physically dominant tight end of all-time (Gronk) is just defeating from the start.
Yes, the Pats will still have Brady and that remains a huge advantage. Moreover, Touchdown Tom, Tom Terrific, or whatever the hell else you want to call him, will also have weapons around him. Julian Edelman has had a down year, Marty B has faded, and Chris Hogan isn’t exactly the bastion of comfort you want despite a nice season. Yet, not having Gronkowski is so crippling to the mental edge that this New England offense has.
Brady can still beat teams with his talent and those players, but opposing defenses aren’t going to be on their heels right from the start without Gronk on the field. When you look at the Pats’ lone loss with Brady at the helm this season versus Seattle, that’s a defense that isn’t going to back down in the slightest no matter who they play. They have developed that mentality and persona over quite some time. However, not every team is mentally tough enough to approach playing Brady-Gronk that confidently. Without the tight end in the fold, though, that edge for the Pats dissipates noticeably.