Why Tom Brady Doesn't Need Rob Gronkowski to Remain Elite

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Why Tom Brady Doesn't Need Rob Gronkowski to Remain Elite
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

There is a world of uncertainty surrounding the New England Patriots heading into the 2013 NFL season.

But the one thing we know for certain is that quarterback Tom Brady will be without all All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski—who underwent back surgery June 18—for the immediate future.

On June 14, CBSSports.com's Jason La Canfora explained that the timetable for Gronkowski's return is far from etched in stone:

It has become pretty obvious he won't be cleared for contact for virtually all of training camp, and spending a considerable amount of time on the PUP list could be ahead as well, depending on the success of the surgery and how Gronkowski's body responds.

On June 19, USA Today's Mike Garafolo spoke to a source who provided a more promising outlook on Gronkowski's return:

The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the Patriots don't divulge injury information publicly, said the optimistic view is that Gronkowski will be back to work just before the end of the preseason.

It remains to be seen whether Gronkowski will be set for September. Regardless, don't expect New England to rush a $55 million investment back into contact until he's ready.

After all, history has shown it's better to have a healthy Gronkowski at the end of the year than the beginning.

And Brady has shown he can be an elite QB with or without him.


A Fluid, Winning Formula

Without question, Brady and the Patriots offense have benefited greatly from the 24-year-old pass-catcher. Over three NFL seasons, the 2010 second-round draft pick has amassed 187 receptions for 2,663 yards and 39 touchdowns (one rushing).

When Gronkowski has been healthy over the last three regular seasons, New England has won 35 of 43 games. When he hasn't, New England has won four of five.

With a difference in winning percentage of 1.3 percent, no concrete conclusions can be drawn about the team's ability to adapt without the star "Y" tight end.

Can the same be said for Brady?

In the 43 contests with Gronkowski, Brady has completed 1,003-of-1,532 passes for 12,395 yards, 98 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.

In those five games without Gronkowski, Brady completed 123-of-208 passes for 1,567 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.

While not nearly as prolific, it's worth mentioning that two of the opponents over that five-game span were the Houston Texans and the San Francisco 49ers—both standout defenses.

In addition, Gronkowski was not the only component of New England's offense dealing with injury over that stretch, and the receiving corps grew thin enough to where veterans Donte Stallworth and Deion Branch were called upon to fulfill expanded roles.

Gronkowski's presence is important to the success of Brady and the Patriots. His presence, however, is not the be-all and end-all for Brady and the Patriots.

 

The Threat of the Run

New England's increasingly balanced offensive approach garnered a serious boost from second-year back Stevan Ridley and the rest of the running-back stable in 2012.

The Patriots rushed for 2,184 yards last season, which was good for seventh best in the NFL. And when it came to rushing touchdowns, the Patriots ranked first.

Success on the ground helped enable the effectiveness through the air. In particular, it opened up the play-action game for Brady.

Against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 16, the Patriots were able to parlay the viable running attack into a deceptive passing attack.

That was evident midway through the first quarter of play, as the Patriots functioned out of "12" personnel on 2nd-and-10.

The Patriots had trickery in mind early versus the Jags. (Image via NFL Game Rewind)

The Jaguars, defending out of a 4-3 scheme, looked prepared to handle the pass and run prior to the snap. That was before Brady turned to Ridley in what appeared to be a handoff.

A trio of Jaguars stepped into an abyss. (Image via NFL Game Rewind)

Jacksonville's front bit on the play. Weak-side linebacker Russell Allen overran reserve tight end Michael Hoomanawanui in an effort to stop an off-tackle carry. Left cornerback Michael Harris cheated up, allowing Brandon Lloyd to edge past him on a fade. Meanwhile, middle linebacker Paul Posluszny made a first step in to protect the A-gap.

Those three knee-jerk reactions by the Jaguars were enough for Hoomanawanui to squeak into the secondary on a corner route.

Hoomanawanui caught the back shoulder of Russell Allen, and Brady saw it. (Image via NFL Game Rewind)

Brady saw no defender within a 10-yard bubble of his tight end and pulled the trigger as the pressure got to him.

Hoomanawanui found himself wide open following the play action. (Image via NFL Game Rewind)

The pass was hauled in and gave the Patriots a 32-yard gain.

The Patriots have a proclivity to challenge linebackers and defensive backs, especially when it comes to eye discipline. The trickery of the run game has become a strength for New England's offense, and its impact has been felt both with and without Gronkowski's block-and-run responsibilities.

 

Red-Zone Adjustments

Brady's favorite red-zone option has been, and probably always will be, the 6'6", 265-pound Gronkowski.

Impossible to miss inside the 20-yard line, No. 87 has been nearly impossible to stop inside the 20-yard line as well.

His physicality and range cannot be replaced. Blessed with a knack for creating mismatches, Gronkowski netted 10 red-zone grabs on 17 targets in 2012, according to FantasyNews.CBSSports.com.

Eight of those 10 catches were touchdowns.

Despite that production, New England was actually more effective in the red zone without Gronkowski last season.

As Bleacher Report Patriots featured columnist Mike Dussault noted in a Dec. 26 column, Brady and Co. scored touchdowns at a 77.8-percent clip without Gronk and 65.3 percent with him through Week 16.

That uptick was a by-product of New England's game-planning, which tailored the offense to its strengths and allowed for Brady to do what he does best: read the defense.

In a 2012 Gronkowski-less tilt against the New York Jets in Week 12, the Patriots exploited New York's defense down by the goal line.

And they did so by taking the in-line tight end—backup Daniel Fells—off the field.

In the second quarter, the Patriots had three yards to go before hitting paydirt. But with Gronkowski unavailable, head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels opted to go with a three-wide-receiver set and "11" personnel.

The Patriots challenged the fringe versus New York. (Image via NFL Game Rewind)

With the Jets in a 3-3 sub-package alignment, New England played to its own strengths: the underneath and the outside. Julian Edelman ran a fade, Aaron Hernandez—a natural "Joker" tight end—ran an out, Wes Welker went in motion and ran a dig, while Lloyd ran a post route.

Consequently, the center of the field was untouched by the Patriots. All four route-runners worked the perimeter, testing the Jets' middle-centric defensive look.

The New York secondary was deceived by Brady's body language. (Image via NFL Game Rewind)

Brady patiently progressed through his reads, looking off the right side of the field and directing all of his attention to the left corner of the end zone.

He saw that Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie had blanketed Edelman in man coverage, that Hernandez hadn't established an opening against linebacker Demario Davis and that Lloyd was shielded behind a cornerback and a safety.

Welker, though, snuck outside as nickelback Ellis Lankster got caught inside. Brady scrambled to the right hash mark and fired off his back foot. Lankster was stuck in no man's land.

Brady went back to the side of the field he ignored during his initial read. (Image via NFL Game Rewind)

The result was a Patriots touchdown in the front corner of the end zone. And neither New England nor Brady needed imposing size in the lineup to do so.

Heavy use of three-wideout formations kept defenses guessing, almost as if the Patriots would have been more predictable if Gronkowski was in the huddle.

 

Distributing the Football

There's a "next man up" philosophy in football that keeps teams adapting through attrition.

When it came to Gronkowski's first forearm injury last year, Hoomanawanui and Fells were the "next men up."

Per Football Outsiders, those two men logged 277 offensive snaps in the five regular-season contests that Gronk missed.

They combined for just five catches and 119 yards in that time. That's not to say neither man was doing his job; they simply weren't cast to assume Gronkowski's receiving duties.

Belichick and staff reworked the offensive game plan and placed an emphasis on sharing the wealth. In turn, Brady spread the ball around. Without the Arizona product last season, Brady still delivered passes to 10 different offensive weapons.

He made the most of the talent around him. It's not the first time he has, either.

Entering his 14th NFL season, Brady has been around long enough to know that no campaign is the same. He has seen the likes of Branch, Randy Moss and Welker depart in 2006, 2010 and 2013, respectively. He even turned wideout Reche Caldwell into his go-to guy in 2006, as he led led the team with 61 grabs for 760 yards and four scores.

New England's top pass-catchers since 2001. (Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com)

Since taking over as the starter in 2001, Brady has helped five different receivers lead the Patriots in catches. None of whom have been named "Gronkowski."

By no means does that suggest Gronk is not valuable to the Patriots. It simply indicates what Brady has been able to do with the array of receivers lined up around him.

 

Rethinking the Term 'Elite'

As time has passed, the 35-year-old signal-caller has come to understand that both the NFL and the Patriots will continue to evolve. Players will come and go; others will miss action due to injury.

For Brady and the Patriots, it's about making a seamless transition through all of the changes.

It's about staying elite.

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

There may not be a clear-cut definition for the word "elite." Although according to "The Merriam-Webster Dictionary," it's "the best of a class."

Elite is often tossed around without much regard for its true meaning. It's often followed by a barrage of questions.

"Is player 'X' going to step up and become elite this season?"

"Is player 'Y' no longer of elite status?"

Whatever elite means, and no matter how cliche a term it has become, it's safe to say Brady is it. He has remained atop his class, despite a slew of personnel changes from year to year.

Expect No. 12 to continue to be so. Expect him to be so before—and after—Gronkowski returns to the field.

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