When Rob Gronkowski was first injured two weeks ago during the Patriots’ win over Baltimore to advance to the Super Bowl, the reaction was instant. The angle that his ankle bent induced an instinctive wince, and immediately we assumed one of New England’s primary receiving targets would be sidelined for the remainder of the season.
As is often the case when the worst is assumed, the injury wasn’t nearly as severe as the angle of that initial bend suggested, and Gronk returned later in the second half against the Ravens. But he was Gronk only in the sense that another person couldn’t occupy the same space as him at the same time.
He wasn’t really Gronk at all. He was just a player at the tight end position, no more threatening than your average tight end. He was meek and feeble, which is exactly what we should have expected.
Fast forward two weeks, and there was improvement, but it wasn’t nearly significant enough. All week long Gronkowski’s ankle was monitored more closely than M.I.A’s middle finger will be from now on, and in some circles there was elation when the inevitable was finally confirmed Sunday morning. Gronkowski would play, we were told. Hooray?
His status as a non-factor exposed the Patriots’ passing game last night between its lack of depth at wide receiver, and their inability to stretch the field without both bruising tight ends playing at their full capacity. Gronkowski finished with 26 receiving yards, which was the second-lowest total of his season, and a steep decline from his per game average of 82.9 yards.
The blame for Tom Brady’s interception early in the fourth quarter on a pass intended for Gronkowski after a deep heave downfield has mostly been slanted in Brady’s direction, and deservedly so. Brady hung a ball high and deep, and allowed it to linger in the air far too long while Giants linebacker Chase Blackburn camped underneath. But at some point a quarterback has to have faith in his receivers to make a play, even if he knows that the target in question isn’t playing at full speed.
A healthy Gronkowoski would have capitalized on the time Brady gave him with the ball in the air, and established better position than Blackburn. He would have boxed Blakburn out to make the catch, or at the very least he would have forced an incompletion.
He did neither, and listening to Blackburn speak after the game, it became evident that a former high school basketball player who averaged 18 rebounds per game was out-basketballed by a linebacker who was stuck covering Gronk way too far downfield because of Brady’s audible at the line of scrimmage.
ESPN’s Dan Graziano spoke to Blackburn about the play that led him into very unfamiliar territory:
“I heard the crowd go wild a little bit, and I thought we had a sack. But I continued to see Gronk go up the field, and I just tried to stay with him. When I saw him look back, I looked back for the ball, and when I spotted it, I tried to just block out and go up for a rebound like in basketball.”
Gronkowski was beaten by a linebacker who was set to take a gig as a substitute teacher only a few months ago around Thanksgiving before the Giants called.
Between Gronkowski’s lack of movement and key drops by Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker, and Deion Branch, Brady’s average yards per attempt was only 6.7 despite having 16 straight completions at one point. That’s a decent and average number for most quarterbacks, but not for a QB who threw for 5,235 yards this year, and did it while clipping along at 8.6 yards per attempt overall.
Brady completed only two passes for 20 yards or more, and both barely qualified (Ochocinco had a 21-yard catch, while Gronkowski had a 20-yard reception). New England led the league in 20+ yard passes this year, finishing with 72 for an average of 4.5 per game.
Gronkowski’s absence played a large role in that decline, as he was the target for 30.5 percent of those 20-yard passes. Beyond his simple ineffectiveness, he was on the field for a season-low 45 snaps last night, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Bill Belichick didn’t fully trust his Pro Bowl tight end, but he was still putting his quarterback in a position where he was forced to have faith in an injured player.
Gronkowski was exposed, and so was the Patriots’ offense beyond him.