Over the weekend, Paul Perillo of Patriots.com reported, “At this point all signs point toward Gronk being ready to go in Week 1…” Great news for Patriots fans everywhere, right?
Not so fast.
Rob Gronkowski returning to game-action in Week 1 is actually very bad news for the New England Patriots. That’s the last time he should be on the field. Even if team doctors clear him for Week 1, Bill Belichick should keep Gronkowski right by his side—on the bench.
To be clear, that statement has everything to do with Gronkowski’s ability. It’s not that his ability hasn’t earned him a spot in the Week 1 starting lineup. Instead, it’s that his incredible talent level and impact on the game need to land him a spot in the starting lineup come January.
And make no mistake, this team will be playing in January with or without their superstar tight end.
As of now, Las Vegas sportsbooks are giving the Patriots 1:4 odds of making the postseason (second only to the Denver Broncos at 1:4.5). Even with those odds, the Patriots are a good bet because there is only one way this team misses the playoffs, and that is if Tom Brady winds up on the injured reserve. With a healthy Nate Solder protecting his blindside, the odds of that happening are certainly less than one in four.
The Patriots have never missed the postseason with Belichick as their head coach and Brady as their starting quarterback. That dates back to Gronkowski’s days as a seventh-grader.
Why should that streak end now?
It won’t. Which is why the Patriots’ end goal this season isn’t to make the playoffs, it’s to win in the playoffs—particularly that last game they call the Super Bowl. That’s a little trickier than just making the playoffs, and subsequently, there are longer odds. Vegas lists the Patriots as 11:1 favorites to win the big game (fourth behind the Broncos, Seahawks and 49ers). To overcome those odds, the Patriots will need Gronkowski.
In a perfect world, of course, he would play the whole season. He would provide some insurance for the Patriots’ high playoff hopes and could single-handedly add another tally or two to the win column during the regular season. Maybe that gets them a bye week; maybe it gets them home field advantage.
Unfortunately, he probably won’t last a whole season. Vegas hasn’t produced any odds for Gronkowski’s health over the course of a full season—to my knowledge, although they are probably out there somewhere—but they can’t be very good.
He missed three games during his sophomore season in college and his entire junior season before entering the pros. After a healthy rookie campaign in 2010 (his only healthy season in a Patriots’ uniform), Gronkowski suffered a high ankle sprain during the 2011 postseason—courtesy of Patriot-killer Bernard Pollard. While he came back to start in the 2011 Super Bowl against the New York Giants, his impact was minimal. Two catches for 26 yards in a game where a healthy Gronkowski could have been the difference between winning and losing. Then we have last two seasons, which are all too familiar for Patriots’ fans:
• 2012 season: A broken forearm in Week 11 kept him off the field until Week 17. He started the Patriots’ first playoff game against the Houston Texans, only to break the same forearm again in the first quarter. That ended his season. The Patriots were shut out by the Baltimore Ravens during the second half of the AFC Championship Game. It’s hard to believe that would have happened with a healthy Gronkowski on the field.
• 2013 season: Gronkowski underwent five surgeries between his initial forearm injury and his return to play in 2013—four on his left forearm and one on his back. He eventually returned to play against the New York Jets in early October but suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Cleveland Browns just seven games later. The Patriots made their way back to the AFC Championship Game without him, but ended up losing 26-16 to the Broncos. They probably could have used him in that game as well, as their offense was largely stagnant against a mediocre defense.
As we approach the 2014 season, does anyone really expect Gronkowski to play a full 16-games and still make it through the playoffs? I’m not sure why you would. He is a hulking tight end at 6’6” 265 lbs. and plays with reckless abandon. Defenders are forced to hit him low and hard so as not to be flattened or dragged into the endzone in Gronk’s wake.
If the hits alone aren’t bad enough, Gronkowski’s size causes him problems off the field. He has the back of Greg Oden or Joel Embiid—one that is going to cause problems just because.
So here is the proposal:
Even if Rob Gronkowski is cleared to play in Week 1, hold him out. Let him get involved in some light contact in practice, but nothing too serious. If the Patriots are in trouble during the regular season, plug him in to right the ship. Assuming they won’t be, hold him out until Week 15. That gives him the opportunity to play three games in what would amount to a de-facto preseason. He is such a freak athlete that he should have no problem picking up where he left off as an elite offensive weapon during that time. Then he would hit the ground running in the postseason for the first time since 2011—the last year the Patriots played for a Super Bowl title. And as long as he remains healthy during those postseason games—a tall order—they’d have a much better chance at winning this time around.
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