When the New England Patriots played the New York Giants in Week 9 of the NFL season, Rob Gronkowski was targeted 15 times. He caught eight balls for 101 yards and one touchdown. One of those eight receptions accounted for 27 yards.
Tom Brady threw the ball 49 times in that game. Rob Gronkowski was the receiver of choice on 30.6 percent of his passes.
Gronkowski has been on the field for 96 percent of all offensive plays this season. I’m not a mathematical or football genius—but that’s a lot.
So, let's not be fooled by the Patriots' company line about "one day at a time" and "next man up." This injury is a significant threat to the Patriots' success in Super Bowl XLVI.
I don’t know if No. 87 is going to play in Super Bowl XLVI. And, unless it’s a Patriots trainer or doctor with at least a decade of experience—no one else does either. And you know they ain’t talkin’.
Did you know that there actually exists a medical entity called the Sprained Ankle Institute? Well there does and I found it.
The Institute says that Gronk has sustained a “syndesmotic” sprain. Well, now that we've cleared that up...
According to the ankle gurus, this means that he has injured the ligaments that hold together the two bones of his lower leg. Surgery (being rumored) is needed if the ligament has pulled far enough away from the bones to affect the stability of the entire joint. My stomach just flipped over, how about yours?
Rob Gronkowski will do everything in his power to convince the coaches to let him play on that ligament and that joint. Let's face it; the coaches want to be convinced.
I think he’ll at least start the game. He will probably be able to block more or less effectively and run some short straight routes. I think his timing will be off if he tries to cut and I think he’ll be useless by the fourth quarter. But that’s just my reasonably educated guess.
What I know is that the star tight end’s injury has given Bill Belichick a golden gift of both media distraction and coaching subterfuge. And that may outweigh the disadvantage of the injury itself.
Between Gronkowski’s ankle and Peyton Manning’s neck, there is very little media pressure on any of the players who might feel the Super Bowl spotlight heat in an adverse way.
I don’t see Brandon Jacobs being grilled about his diminished stat sheet, or Mario Manningham about his health, or the New England secondary about what the heck Julian Edelman is doing in it.
No one is making Tom Brady angry by asking him if his team will choke. No one is embarrassing Matt Light and Logan Mankins by bringing up their inability to keep Brady upright in Super Bowl XLII. No one is stirring up too much trouble with Chad Ochocinco or running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis about how much they will see the ball.
Everything is playing out under the Gronkowski injury umbrella. I’m sure Bill B. is thrilled. Does he get thrilled? Whatever.
Far more important is the burden Gronk’s playing status is putting on the New York Giants' coaching staff. As much as we are all endlessly guessing how productive the tight end will be in the Pats' offense—how would you like to have your future employment riding on guessing right?
This is when the “from the neck up” part of football is critical. How many different defensive scenarios do you load onto your players? Gronk in, Gronk out, Gronk at 80 percent, Gronk as a decoy.
And what about all of the offensive changes that the tight end’s tenuous leg health demand of New England? How will Belichick compensate?
And can Tom Coughlin read his mind and be ready?
“The domino effect is the idea that some change, small in itself, will cause a similar change nearby, which then will cause another similar change, and so on in linear sequence, by analogy to a falling row of dominoes standing on end.”
How ironic that the biggest sporting event in America (and an international sensation) may be decided on the tear of a ligament. And not even because of the connective tissue itself, but by the ripples that injured ankle has sent throughout both coaching staffs.
Here are the various possibilities for which the Giants must prepare:
1) Gronkowski starts, but is limited to blocking duty and a couple of slot routes. Tom Brady uses the even-more-athletic Aaron Hernandez as Gronk II and the Pats start targeting their second tight end on 30 percent of the passes.
This is probably first choice if you are a Giants fan. It adds an offensive lineman but takes away one offensive weapon.
2) Gronkowski starts as above, but Belichick decides to mix things up by running the ball more or giving Green-Ellis some of Gronk’s shorter routes.
Opposing defenses have a habit of forgetting about the Patriots running back because, while a good player, he is not (usually) the big-play threat that the big tight end is/was/might be.
3) Gronkowski starts, but Belichick keeps his true playing ability a secret by trying to stretch the field out of the gate with passes to Deion Branch and (gasp) Ochocinco.
Frankly, the Patriots might have been planning to do this anyway, since if they can loosen up the middle of the field then either TE, Wes Welker or Green-Ellis can eat up yards and clock. However, Green-Ellis is only averaging 3.4 yards-per-carry in the postseason and has one reception. But he does have six first downs.
4) If Gronk can’t play or leaves the game, Belichick may elect to either slide Hernandez into his position or split what would have been “Gronk targets” between Hernandez and Welker. Welker is averaging nine yards-per-catch in the playoffs and has seven first downs.
5) The Hernandez problem. In this year’s postseason, the “other” New England TE is having a wonderful time. He has 11 catches, averages 11 yards each catch, has scored a touchdown, and has achieved seven first downs through the air.
He has also become another rusher, with eight carries for 70 yards. NFL Films caught Champ Bailey yelling at him in frustration, “What? You’re a running back now?” Apparently so.
Plus, Hernandez and Gronkowski have been competing against each other since high school as two of the best TEs of their age in the country. You don’t think Aaron would like to have a huge game? Uh-huh.
6) The Troy Brown, Jr. problem. Julian Edelman can evidently play about seven positions on a football field. He is usually reserved for special teams, but was spotted last week at both WR and DB.
I would think that Belichick will try to keep him available to shore up that thin secondary. However, if he shows up on third down or on the goal line—he’s getting the ball. No, I don't have a pipeline to Belichick's mind (and I'm not sure I'd want to go in there if I did), but it's the Mike Vrabel principle: why else would he be in the game?
The biggest question mark will be who Tom Brady will go to under pressure (because there will be pressure) if his big tight end "blankee" isn’t available. Brady has become as dependent on Gronkowski as Tony Romo is on Jason Witten.
And that is why the team needs Gronk to play and why the team's chances of a win depend upon it more than anyone in the northeastern United States wants to admit. Well, except in New York—but that's a different universe unto itself.
If No. 87 can’t fulfill his usual role, I would bet that Brady will throw to Welker in the field and Branch in the red zone. But I’m sure Tom Coughlin has his own opinion, since he hasn’t called to ask for mine.
New England would like us to think that they expect Gronkowski to be his usual dominant self out there Sunday. Right.
New York would like us to think that they don’t care whether he plays or not—they’ve got it covered. Right.
The biggest impact of Rob Gronkowski’s injury in the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl has been in the offensive confidence level of the Patriots. Or at least of their quarterback.
Before the AFC Championship game, in an interview with ESPN’s NFL Countdown, Tom Brady stated that the Pats were going to go out there and play their game. He said, “Try to stop us.”
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