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Patriots' Handling of Rob Gronkowski Speaks Volumes of Bill Belichick's Genius

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Patriots' Handling of Rob Gronkowski Speaks Volumes of Bill Belichick's Genius
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Bill Belichick made a brilliant decision when he selected Rob Gronkowski in the second round of the 2010 draft, and the New England Patriots head coach is once again exhibiting his football genius by structuring his team to win without the former University of Arizona tight end.

Gronkowski seemingly owns every NFL tight end record that starts with the word "youngest," as his meteoric rise to being widely regarded as the best tight end in the game occurred before his 24th birthday.

In 2011, he had the most prolific tight end season in league history with 90 receptions for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. 

Since his rookie season in 2010, no pass-catcher has caught more touchdown passes. No, not even Calvin Johnson.

Name Games Since Start of 2010 Season TD Catches
Rob Gronkowski 43 38
Calvin Johnson 47  33
Dez Bryant 43 27
James Jones 48 26
Mike Wallace 47 26

Unfortunately for the budding superstar with immeasurable upside, injuries have obstructed his pursuit of continued preeminence. 

The ankle injury he suffered in the 2012 AFC title game against the Baltimore Ravens significantly hindered his abilities in the Super Bowl XLVI loss to the New York Giants.

After an offseason rehabilitation process, Gronkowski was well on his way to another ultra-productive season when he broke his forearm during a meaningless extra point attempt in November with the Patriots up 35 points.

He returned for the season-finale against the Miami Dolphins, but re-broke his forearm in the divisional-round playoff victory over the Houston Texans.

As unique as Gronkowski is in pads on Sunday, he's just as relatable in shorts and a t-shirt the rest of the week. Along with his authoritative presence on the football field, that personality trait has played a major role in his growing popularity.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Let's dive into Gronkowski's nationwide appeal and explain why Belichick has been preparing to win without his reigning All-Pro tight end.

 

The Gronk

Gronkowskian. A newly formed adjective meaning "to possess gargantuan physical attributes and utilize them to bully defenders on a consistent basis both as a receiver and blocker."

While "Gronkowskian" isn't part of common football jargon just yet, that doesn't mean it won't be in the future. 

The 6'6'', 265-pounder with deceptive athleticism, tremendously large and strong hands, squeaky clean route-running skills and devastating blocking abilities is unlike any tight end the NFL has ever seen.

Off the field, he's a refreshingly exuberant bachelor who rarely, if ever, misses the opportunity to party. Basically, he's your classic single guy who's itching to make his 20s, let's say, memorable. He epitomizes the age-old jock and frat boy personas but does so in a harmless, contagiously fun-loving way.

On the field though, he has certainly handled his business.

 

The Risk 

All draft prospects come with inherent risk, but Gronkowski was riskier than usual when he entered the 2010 draft.

After being named to the freshman All-American team by The Sporting News in 2007 and accumulating 47 catches for 672 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2008, the monstrous tight end missed the entire 2009 season after undergoing back surgery to repair a bulging disk that was touching his spinal cord.

(Let's just say, when he fell on his neck while scoring a touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs in 2011, the entire New England region collectively held its breath.)

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

If not for the serious injury concerns, in all likelihood, Gronkowski would have been a first-rounder. 

He still managed to be the second tight end taken in that draft after the Cincinnati Bengals picked Jermaine Gresham in Round 1. 

While his boisterous social life wasn't as well-documented back then, the Patriots have been forced to accept it over the last few years. 

Why? 

Because while it may be considered unprofessional, sophomoric and immature to some, Gronkowski hasn't experienced any run-ins with the law.

However, it's been argued that his off-field shenanigans could eventually lead to injury.

Seriously.

After all, he did perform wrestling moves on his brother in a night club in Las Vegas in early February of 2013.

Thankfully, he didn't re-injure is forearm while demonstrating his WWE skills that evening.

But the injury concerns surrounding his forearm remain serious. According to the Boston Herald, he'll have a fourth surgery to "change the plate that’s securing the broken bone in the forearm."

Think that development has gotten Belichick's attention? 

Most definitely. 

And he's already been planning to experience life without a fully-healthy Gronkowski in the future.

 

The Evolution

Belichick has always scoured to find undervalued talent to infuse into his team, especially on offense. He's obsessed with continually evolving, staying ahead of the curve and despises complacency. 

When Randy Moss was drifting aimlessly on the Oakland Raiders, Belichick sensed he could inexpensively acquire a truly legendary deep threat. 

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

So he traded a fourth-round pick to Al Davis for the wideout. 

The following year, quarterback Tom Brady threw for then a career-high 4,806 yards with a record-breaking 50 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. Moss set the league record for touchdown receptions with 23, and the Patriots cemented themselves as one of the most threatening offenses of all time.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Oh, and they finished the regular season 16-0.

After things went sour with Moss and Belichick, the shrewd head coach confidently moved on after the undervalued Gronkowski and overlooked tight end prospect Aaron Hernandez were drafted. 

New England's offense seamlessly transitioned to a two tight end heavy attack, and Gronkowski and Hernandez terrorized defenses. 

Wes Welker remained as Brady's dependable security blanket, but less than a year removed from having extreme vertical elements to their passing game, the Patriots had turned back the clocks to the days of jumbo formations. 

Most recently, Belichick, who believed he discovered two undervalued prospects in Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen in the 2011 draft, shifted his club's offense to be more predicated on power running. The switch was somewhat of a necessity with more two tight end sets, and it would also highlight Gronkowski's run-blocking prowess.

Team 2012 Running Attempts 2012 Rushing Touchdowns
Seahawks 536  16
Patriots 523 25
Redskins 519 22
Texans 508 19
Chiefs 500 9

While Gronkowski hasn't been removed from this year's offensive game plan—and rightfully so—Belichick is intelligently making more alterations to stay efficient offensively if his elite tight end can't stay healthy. 

Obviously, Gronk's production isn't easy to replace, but Jake Ballard was signed in the offseason to add to the tight end reinforcements that include Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells.

Can the Patriots offense remain among the league's best without a healthy Gronkowski?

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Speed receivers Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce were added in the draft, likely with the intention of keeping coverage off the tight ends in the middle of the field.

Danny Amendola was inked to be the ever-important Welker replacement. 

There should be a greater offensive emphasis on the downfield passing game, but with Leon Washington and newly acquired bulldozer LeGarrette Blount, expect the rushing attack to be prominently featured. 

Therefore, the Patriots should be able to—yet again—field an exceptionally methodical offense if Gronkowski isn't available or isn't 100 percent at any point of the season.

Bill Belichick knows how special Rob Gronkowski is, and it's obvious how difficult New England is to stop when he's on the field. But as usual, New England's head coach has taken an astute, businesslike approach in creating a progressive contingency plan for his Patriots.

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