Patriots back to playing without Gronk factor
New England quarterback Tom Brady directs his teammates during the Patriots' 24-20 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Monday night. (Streeter Lecka / Getty Images / November 18, 2013)
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NFL Team Report - New England Patriots - INSIDE SLANT
The season is going to end the way it started for both Rob Gronkowski and the New England passing attack -- with the Pro Bowl tight end sidelined with a major injury and the Patriots offense searching for a way to produce without its most important player not named Tom Brady.
Gronkowski was knocked out of action in the third quarter of Sunday's eventual win over the Browns when a low hit on his right knee upended the playmaker and sent him to the locker room riding a cart. He was sent to the hospital for what Bill Belichick said was "observation and examination."
That reportedly revealed a torn ACL and MCL in Gronkowski's knee, ending his season immediately and sending him back to where he's spent so much of the last two years - on the surgery table and in the rehab process.
After sitting out the first six weeks of the season recovering from offseason forearm and back surgeries, Gronkowski had returned to action Oct. 20 and in a six-plus game span returned to his role as the most effective offensive player New England has. He caught 39 passes for 592 yards with four touchdowns.
More importantly a Patriots offense that was battling problems in the red zone, on third down conversions and lacked consistency, began to produce in the way that's come to be expected in New England. Brady led an attack that scored 27 or more points in six of seven games after having reached that mark just twice in the first six weeks. In the most recent five games Brady topped 300 yards four times and 400 yards twice. He had a passer rating of 91 or better in all five games after clearing that plateau just twice in the first six weeks.
There was no question that the man they call Gronk ignited the offense with both is production and the attention he drew from opposing defenses.
Now, as was the case for the first six weeks and to close out the postseason a year ago, Gronkowski is lost to injury.
With three weeks of regular season action left and the 10-3 Patriots leading the way at this point for at least the No. 2 seed in the AFC and the first-round bye, New England will have to undergo its third offensive identity change this season.
"It just shifts; you just have to find a different formula," Brady said Monday morning in his weekly interview with sports radio WEEI. "I think that's the important part. And Gronk provides a certain margin of error because of how talented a player he is, and the other guys play different roles for us."
According to Belichick, the Patriots will have to find a way to replace Gronkowski's unique talents and skills, much as the team has had to do losing Pro Bowl defenders Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo to injured reserve earlier in the season.
"I think Rob is similar to the conversations we had with Jerod and Vince. I don't think too many teams have players of that caliber at any position to just put in another Rob Gronkowski or put in another Vince Wilfork or put in another Jerod Mayo," Belichick said. "Whoever is in there is going to have to fulfill some of those duties but it may expand to more people, like we ended up having to do offensively, using more four-receiver sets instead of three receivers and a tight end or something like that. Or it might result in the tight ends getting more plays, or some combination there. Some of that may change from game to game."
Maybe looking for a silver lining in an incredibly dark injury cloud, Belichick reference the experience the team gained having to battle each week earlier this year without it's Pro Bowl pass catcher.
"Obviously we've unfortunately had to play without Rob for games at the beginning of the season," Belichick said. "We've dealt with that already this year. I'd like to think there's going to be some carryover there, not only the first six weeks of the season but the entire training camp as well. That's the way we practiced and played most of the year, including the preseason games and that's what, 10 games? So, it was great to have him back and he was obviously a big contributor for us. One way or the other, we'll have to adjust to it."
That early season action included a lot of action for rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, both of whom missed Sunday's game against Cleveland with foot and hip injuries, respectively. It also resulted in Patriots attack that struggled mightily more often than not. And back then New England's defense was playing at a much higher level, but now injuries to Wilfork, Mayo, Tommy Kelly and an overall banged up secondary have depleted that side of the ball as well.
There is no way to sugarcoat things, a Patriots team that's already had seven of its 13 games decided by three points or less, including the last three, is likely to be in a fight for its life on a weekly basis leading up to and into the postseason.
Belichick clearly feels that his team has already displayed the type of resiliency this fall that should serve the group well with the battles it now faces moving forward with an undermanned roster.
"No question about it. Very tough minded and determined group that even though at times the deck has been stacked against us or it's been things that we've had to overcome, they haven't ever made any excuses or tried to back down from the challenge," Belichick raved. "They just try to meet it head-on with the best effort they can. Sometimes it's been good enough, sometimes it hasn't. The attitude, the ability to go out there and fight and persevere and deal with whatever the circumstances are and not really get too fazed by it, but just try to deal with it, has been very impressive by the entire team this year, especially with some young guys and newer faces on the team. Overall, they've all embraced whatever the opportunity is, even though it may not look too bright. They embrace the opportunity, try to go out there and make the best of it."