The New England Patriots are in excellent shape to make the playoffs this year and should do so while winning the AFC East for the eighth year in a row, and the thirteenth time since 2000.
It seems very likely that they will have to do it, at least in some part, without tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Gronkowski left Sunday’s win over the New York Jets with a back injury—this after missing the Week 11 game against San Francisco. While the injury has been deemed not serious by the team, Gronkowski has already missed two games this season, and it would come as a surprise to nobody if he missed one or two more down the stretch.
As good as Gronkowski is—and he sure seems like one of the best to ever play the position in the modern era—he is wildly unreliable when it comes to his health. The Patriots must know they cannot count on him for the rest of the year—perhaps even into the playoffs.
Gronkowski has only played two complete seasons—2010 and 2011, his first two in the league. Since then, he has yet to finish a full season, though in 2014 and 2015, he missed just one game each. Still, even if you assume he doesn’t miss another game this year, he averages 3.2 missed games a year.
With Gronkowski, it’s fair to assume he will be hurt more often than not. Every player is less than 100 percent from the moment they step onto the field in Week 1, but for Gronkowski, the injuries which seem to accumulate often go beyond a tweaked hamstring.
His recent perforated lung is a good example of that. Like teammate Danny Amendola, who for years suffered one odd injury after another, Gronkowski seems to incur injuries which aren’t really preventable.
You can’t condition yourself to prevent a broken arm or a perforated lung.
The problem facing the Patriots is that even if he can play out the remainder of the season, Gronkowski is going to be less than healthy. Further, an injury like a back injury can be a lingering issue, keeping Gronkowski off the field and perhaps inactive for games.
The Patriots have been trying to find a solid backup for years, so we know they are aware of the issues around Gronkowski. He’s a huge part of their offense, but as with all things “Patriots,” it is clear head coach Bill Belichick has alternate plans.
That’s one of the reasons they took a shot with Martellus Bennett, and it’s why getting Dion Lewis back is such a big deal for the team. Both are players who can either fill Gronkowski’s role or cover his absence up to an extent.
Bennett fills in as the big athletic tight end who is a nightmare mismatch for linebackers and safeties, while Lewis is a dynamic pass catcher who can create big plays on underneath routes, helping the Patriots overcome the lack of the vertical threat Gronkowski brings to the table.
Without a doubt, the team would prefer to have Gronkowski on the field, and healthy (or at least mostly healthy). However, given his injury history and the continued battering of his body, the team has to be careful about depending on him down the stretch.
Rob Gronkowski is a massive problem for defenses when he’s on the field. Far too often, though, he’s not on the field.
The Patriots know they can’t always count on his body to hold up, but have already taken steps to try and account for that.