BOSTON (CBS) — Nothing sucks the fun out of a 59-24 victory quite like a broken forearm to the most dynamic tight end in football.
That’s what the Patriots are dealing with after Rob Gronkowski broke his forearm while blocking on an extra point late in Sunday’s blowout victory over the Colts.
While some folks have used the injury to debate why Gronkowski was even on the field at that moment, or why he blocks on PATs at all, none of that really matters at this point. What does matter for the Patriots will be how they figure out a way to make that offense go without the centerpiece.
Through 11 weeks of the season, the Patriots rank first in yards gained and points scored per game in the entire NFL, and it’s not even close. With 431.9 yards ever week, They gain 30.2 more yards per game than the second-ranked Lions, and with an average of 35.8 points per game, they score 5.7 more points every week than second-ranked Denver.
However, with Gronkowski out of the mix for perhaps the remainder of the regular season, expect a very different looking offense from here on out.
Gronkowski himself accounts for roughly 75 yards and six points every single week, but even when he’s not making catches, he’s opening up opportunities for everyone else. We’ve seen all too often teams try to take out Gronkowski, which then only leaves Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Danny Woodhead or Aaron Hernandez in a mismatch that favors the Patriots. Tom Brady rarely misses those opportunities. Just last week for example, the Bills worked to somewhat neutralize Gronkowski by limiting him to four catches for 31 yards (one was a TD). While holding Gronk to just 31 yards is no small feat, it came at a price. In this instance, the price was giving up 74 yards to Welker, 46 yards to Woodhead, 45 yards to Lloyd, 30 yards to Deion Branch and 37 points overall.
Without Gronkowski either getting open in man coverage and devastating defenses or drawing double teams and attention from the safety to open up the rest of the receivers, Brady’s passing offense is going to come back down to earth over the next few weeks. There’s just no getting around that fact.
Adding to the uncertainty of the passing offense is the questionable health of Hernandez’s ankle. Hernandez is being discussed as if he’ll definitely be ready for Thursday, but that hardly seems like a guarantee. If he was unable to play on Sunday, how much healing can really take place over the course of the next three days? And will the Patriots risk rushing him back yet again and potentially leading to another setback? That risk looks even worse when you consider that with a game on Thursday, the Patriots have a sort of mini-bye, which would allow Hernandez essentially two extra weeks away from contact that could help him return stronger in Week 13 at Miami.
While the passing offense is undoubtedly a concern without Gronkowski, the tight end’s absence as a run blocker should not be overlooked. Gronkowski blocks on a patchwork offensive line that Dante Scarnecchia has somehow managed to make work, but you have to wonder if the injury to Gronkowski is the tipping point. Without Brian Waters all year and without Logan Mankins for half the year, the Patriots still rank fifth in the NFL with 142.9 rushing yards per game and they lead the league by a fairly large margin with 16 rushing touchdowns on the year (four teams are tied for second with 12). Gronkowski is a run blocker who often completely destroys whoever he’s lined up against, and no matter who stands in his place, he’ll be impossible to replace.
And ultimately, where Gronkowski’s absence will hurt the Patriots most is the area that is the exact reason why offenses take the field: scoring points. With the obligatory mention of Jimmy Graham, Gronkowski is perhaps the most lethal red zone target in the NFL. Freakishly athletic at 6-foot-6, Brady often has the luxury of throwing his passes 7 feet high, where only Gronkowski can haul them in. It’s as big a reason as any why Gronkowski is tied for the NFL lead with 10 receiving touchdowns. No stat better illustrates his impact in the red zone than this: Six of those 10 TDs came from inside the 7-yard line.
While the receiving corps of Welker, Lloyd, Edelman and eventually Hernandez is a strong one, there’s no other Patriot with more than three receiving touchdowns. That’s a significant scoring gap that can’t easily be filled.
Compounding the Patriots’ problems is their schedule, provided Gronkowski does indeed miss six weeks, as most reports indicate. Two games against Miami and one against Jacksonville shouldn’t be problematic, but a short week of preparation against the Jets along with their games against the Texans and 49ers — teams with the fourth- and first-ranked defenses, respectively, in terms of points allowed — become a whole lot more difficult without Gronkowski. And while the Patriots should have no trouble cruising to another AFC East title, they’ll likely need to go 5-1 the rest of the way in order to earn a first-round bye in the postseason. If the offense struggles to click in any of those games, the entire path to getting to the Super Bowl changes.
That’s the bad news. It’s certainly a lot.
Of course, none of it means the season is over for New England. Brady is still better than just about anyone else, and as long as the offense protects the football and the defense continues to force turnovers, the Patriots shouldn’t find themselves on the wrong side of any lopsided scores from now through Week 17. However, the Gronkowski injury all but guarantees that more often than not, for the rest of the season, the Patriots will find themselves in much closer games than they’ve grown accustomed to over the past three games. Their 2-3 record in games decided by six or fewer points doesn’t exactly bode well, either.
No matter what, even with Gronkowski’s injury it would be shocking if the Patriots don’t finish the year with at least a 3-3 or 4-2 record. It won’t be quite as easy as it would be with Gronkowski, but beating the Dolphins and Jaguars shouldn’t require 50 points per game. It’s in those tougher matchups with the Jets, 49ers and Texans that Gronkowski’s absence will be felt most, and if Brady and the offense can’t find a way to make it work, the Patriots will find themselves playing on wild-card weekend instead of enjoying a first-round bye.
It sounds bad for the Patriots, but that’s still a problem that the majority of NFL teams would love to have.