With Rob Gronkowski’s season more than likely over, Patriots fans really shouldn’t worry that much at their team’s chance for a Super Bowl. Perhaps the Madden cover player curse lives on, but the Patriots have no real reason to worry.
Gronkowski’s is more than just a clutch tight end for the Pats. He’s built like a linebacker but has the athleticism of a quick wide receiver. Gronk is by far the best tight end in the NFL, even with an injury-riddled career. Gronk leads the league in yards per catch this season and even when injured is a constant threat on the field. So one would expect that after Gronkowski underwent surgery on Friday the Patriots would be lost without their superstar. Before freaking out (which hasn’t even crossed any Patriots fans minds), remember the Patriots run a unique system. They may line players up the same as every other team, but behind those players is William Stephen Belichick.
The Patriots have finished first in the AFC East for 13 of Belichick’s 16 season tenure. They’ve had great rosters and owe lots of their success to some guy named Tom Brady, but Belichick consistently turns an average team into a Super Bowl contender with no name players. Players become big names after playing for the Patriots (remember Malcolm Butler before his Super Bowl interception – yeah no one else does either). While the competition of the AFC East can be called into question, the Patriots are consistently successful against non-Conference teams.
So back to the Tom Brady guy – statistically the best quarterback in NFL history. Four Super Bowl and six appearances, 200 career wins, two MVP awards. Brady leads the league with a 90 QBR when one or no tight ends are on the field this season. He makes any and all wide receivers or running backs around him better players (remember Wes Welker’s subpar career with the Broncos). Not to mention the fact that Brady has the best QBR in the league even though he missed the first four games of the season and Gronkowski missed three while barely playing in another two.
Gronk’s backup, Martellus Bennett, may not be the best tight end in the league, but he is still a replacement. Bennett has battled injuries himself this season, but remains one of if not the best run blocking tight end in the league. Bennett uses his size and strength to move down the field, second in yards per catch among all tight ends. He’s no Gronk, but he’s not a roster filler who only sees action as a blocker every few players. When healthy, Bennett has the potential to be a top five tight end.
As for the other players who are paid to sometimes catch flying prolate spheroids from Tom Brady, the Pats are in a comfortable position. Julian Edelman remains Tom Brady’s favorite target and a top slot receiver. Chris Hogan remains questionable due to back injury, very few cornerbacks can match his pure speed and agility for deep throws (he is second in the league to Gronkowski in yards per catch). The Patriots also have Malcolm Mitchell, who last week became the first ever player to beat Darrelle Revis for two touchdowns in the same game. Given the Patriots’ history with come-out-of-nowhere players, Mitchell could score another two touchdowns this week or he could see zero minutes of playing time. Belichick doesn’t reward good performances one week with playing time the next, he expects players to work hard and produce every time they practice or play (Jonas Grey missing practice comes to mind). The Patriots could make their practice squad receivers next week’s big news story with Tom Brady at the helm. Brady is so consistent that his receivers seemingly decide to drop perfect passes to make it fairer for opponents.
While the Patriots have never been known as a running team, LeGarrette Blount still leads the league in rushing touchdowns this season. Blount powers through defenses and consistently comes up big for the Pats each game, but he’s not the only running back opponents have to keep track of. While Dion Lewis and James White are listed as running backs on the roster, both actually play as “slot backs,” running screens, blocking opponents, and playing like a hybrid running back-wide receiver. Both are deadly weapons and can surprise a defense in opportune moments.
With or without Gronkowski, the Patriots’ offense is not the difference between a Super Bowl or a disappointing playoff run. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick can produce a top offense even without big players like Brady himself. The Patriots struggle without the ball in their hands however. Their defense, ranked an average thirteenth in the league, struggled last week against the Jets. Ryan Fitzpatrick lost his starting position to Geno Smith earlier this season, yet he made the Pats secondary run in circles. Even worse, the Patriots pass rush is nonexistent since Belichick traded two unbelievable DEs in Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins. While Bill likes to spend the team’s money on offensive players, his decision to interpret Collins’ request for a higher salary as a trade request to the Browns only hurt their defense even more. They may have kept a top ten defense for the last six seasons while constantly bringing in no-name rookies and trading them once they become all pro athletes, but this trend has still hurt them. If the Patriots had a top five defense, they would be an unstoppable team – think back to the 2007 regular season.
At this point in the season, the Patriots are guaranteed a playoff spot and will most likely receive a first round bye. From there they have to prove themselves each and every time they step on the field. While their game plan may have changed slightly without Gronk, his projected absence is not the end-all of their season. The Patriots success will come down to the defense (as it has every year since Brady joined the team) and their ability to make big Malcolm Butler 2015 Super Bowl plays when the game is on the line.