Losing Rob Gronkowski was a major blow to the Patriots' title hopes. But, at the end of the day, the Pats will be fine. After all, they've got a great scheme, quality backups, and history on their side.
Gronkowski is an all-world athlete, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. But he's not as critical to the Patriots' offense as many people think. The Pats system runs on concepts, not players. While the big tight end was an awesome field-stretcher and routinely commanded double teams, freeing up space for other players, scheme still rules over team. The passing game has a lot of quick-hit screens and pick plays, all of which don't require a Gronk, but do lead to easy completions and yards. None of those concepts changes with Gronk out.
Thankfully for New England, it's not like they're playing with a normal backup at tight end, either. Martellus Bennett is one of the best in the game in his own right, and is capable of doing everything Gronk has done, just at a slightly lower level. He'll allow the Pats to work in those deep throws and catch-and-run plays that were so effective with Gronk in the lineup.
But there's one other big point here, and it's counterintuitive but convincing: the Calvin Johnson theory. Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson played together in Detroit for all of Stafford's career before this year. The quarterback has one of the strongest arms in the game, and Johnson was one of the best jump-ball receivers in history. A match made in heaven, right? Not so fast. Stafford was able to rack up the yards and touchdowns throwing to Johnson, but he also heaved a lot of interceptions looking for the big wideout. Despite gaudy numbers, the team was stuck in the mud. Then, Johnson retired and the Lions shot up to first place in the NFC north and Stafford became an MVP candidate. Why?
Johnson's loss was undoubtedly a big blow to Detroit, and I'm not going to argue that Tom Brady makes mistakes like Matt Stafford--that's stupid. But there is a point here: when Stafford's best weapon got taken away, he stopped force-feeding Johnson the ball and started spreading it around, which boosted his offense and his stats. Considering how Brady plays darn near mistake-free football, I don't think there's going to be an improvement with Gronk out. But I think spreading the ball around, especially to guys like Bennett, Julian Edelman, and promising rookie Malcolm Mitchell, shouldn't hurt the Pats one bit.
Photo courtesy New England Patriots
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