The New England Patriots are not automatically going to be fine without Rob Gronkowski. You don’t just brush off the loss of the most dynamic pass-catching tight end the NFL has ever seen. But in an AFC that has a good, but not world-beating, Oakland Raiders team tied for the best record, Brock Osweiler leading a division and the Miami Dolphins in the playoffs if the season ended today, the New England Patriots will be able to survive the loss of Gronk and even possibly thrive in his absence.
It’s not the roadmap Bill Belichick and Tom Brady would have preferred but it’s the one they’re going to get. Lucky for them, there’s no one more equipped to handle it.
"It’s a good thing they have Martellus Bennett," will be a common refrain in and around the New England area this week and for good reason: It’s a good thing Gronk’s backup is someone as accomplished and athletic as the 29-year-old tight end, most recently of Chicago Bears fame. He’s a rarity in Pats’ free agency: The newcomer who isn’t a reclamation project but a fully formed NFL player coming in at, or near, his peak. He caught 90 balls in 2014, six for touchdowns, before getting on a similar pace in 2015 until missing the last part of the season. Signing with New England as a complement to Gronkowki (the last time the Pats had a successful double tight end-threat was when Aaron Hernandez was on the team), Bennett debuted by showing he was capable of shouldering the load himself during Gronk’s five-game absence this season.
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Bennett is used as a target exactly as much as Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels want, but his blocking skills, both in the run and pass game (which was especially crucial when Jimmy Garoppolo was on the field) make him an invaluable asset even when he’s not running routes. In Week 1, Bennett had three catches for 14 yards but had value far beyond those numbers. The Patriots won that game and the other four Bennett has started in Gronkowski’s stead.
Overall, Gronk has missed, or barely played in, 20 Pats games since his breakout sophomore campaign. In those games, the Patriots are 17-3 (.850). In games since then with Gronk, New England sports a 40-15 (.727) mark. Numbers don’t tell everything, of course: Tom Brady has a lower completion percentage, yards per game, touchdown rate and QB rating without his safety blanket.
The biggest advantage Belichick will have during Gronkowski’s absence is the element of surprise — something he and the Pats always use to their advantage anyway. There won’t be standard game plan with Bennett in the game. He might be used as a blocker and decoy one week or Gronk 2.0 the next. There will be different looks. It’s all about matchups, which is a very dangerous thing for the teams getting matched up against. No one is happy about the loss of Gronk, but if you had to have one coach/QB/TE trio right now, you’d pick Belichick, Brady and Bennett in a heartbeat.
If this were a year with an in-form Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers on an upswing then, yeah, the loss of Gronkowski might be the difference between playing for a Super Bowl or watching from home. But given that the Pats are already in control of a playoff bye, patch up holes better than any team in recent history and play in a conference that scares exactly nobody, then why shouldn’t New England be able to shoulder the loss of its second-best offensive player? This is what the Patriots do. They adapt. Well.