It was a disappointing season for the TCU Horned Frogs. After a 7-6 year in 2012 that ended with a Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl appearance, they struggled to a 4-8 record in 2013.
The 9-4 Marshall Thundering Herd lost the Conference USA Championship to Rice but is preparing for the Military Bowl against the Maryland Terrapins. The Cincinnati Bearcats (9-3) are readying for a Belk Bowl confrontation with the North Carolina Tar Heels.
For recent graduates of these programs, receivers Josh Boyce (TCU), Aaron Dobson (Marshall) and Kenbrell Thompkins (Cincinnati), their rookie seasons for the New England Patriots are, in theory, over.
In other words, I’m changing the definition of their rookie years. These three first-year wideouts have exceeded the equivalent of a college season, which now should be considered enough time to at least have gotten their feet wet in the NFL.
With the New England offense again without tight end Rob Gronkowski, the team needs the rookie receivers to cross the threshold from wide-eyed neophytes to composed professionals.
The Gronk Effect was profound for the offense. After struggling for the first six games of the season, the Patriots' offense became dominant again upon Gronkowski’s return. According to the The Boston Globe’s Shalise Manza Young:
■ Over the first six games of the season, Brady was 136 of 239, a completion percentage of just 56.9. Since then, he’s 150 for 232, or 64.7 percent.
■ Without Gronkowski available, and with Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan as the only tight ends, just 6.7 percent of Brady’s attempts went to players at the position. Since then, it’s 26.3 percent of his attempts, almost exclusively going to Gronkowski.
■ In the first six games of the season, Brady was averaging 6.2 yards per passing attempt, which would have been the lowest of his career, and over the last six that number has spiked to 7.7 YPA, much closer to where he’s been since 2007.
■ As a team, New England has seen a big improvement in red-zone efficiency, with just nine touchdowns in 22 opportunities (40.9 percent) pre-Gronkowski, and 19 touchdowns in 28 opportunities (67.9 percent) post, and also in points per game—20.8 without the All-Pro in the lineup, 32.8 PPG with him.
Without Gronkowski against the Miami Dolphins, the offense bogged down in the red zone, scoring one TD in four trips. Quarterback Tom Brady averaged 6.6 yards per attempt for the entire game. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui had one reception on three targets.
No single player on the team can replace what Gronkowski did for the Patriots. A one-handed touchdown catch by Hoomanawanui can be Gronk-like, but he won’t consistently make plays like Gronkowski can.
But with enough contributions from its rookie receiver class, the Patriots offense can be good enough to win games. New England looked like they could have used Dobson and Thompkins against Miami.
First, give credit where credit is due. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola turned in impressive performances, as they combined for 23 receptions, 270 yards and a touchdown. But in the red zone, neither was able to come down with the ball against tight coverage.
The difference between those incompletions and possible game-winning scores was literally inches. Amendola is 5'11" and Edelman all of 5'10". Maybe the 6'1" Thompkins or Dobson (6'3") come down with such contested passes if either were healthy enough to play (more on that later).
Dobson, a second-round pick, and the free-agent Thompkins both have come a long way from the first half of the season, though growing pains were expected. Mental mistakes and dropped passes led to a visibly frustrated Brady.
But as they went through their NFL crash courses, they got better. Thompkins was the first of the two to make an impact on the offense. He was huge against the Atlanta Falcons, finishing with six receptions for 127 yards and a touchdown. The highlight of Thompkins’ season was the game-winning 17-yard touchdown against the New Orleans Saints.
Dobson’s emergence began when he made a nifty diving touchdown reception against the Dolphins. A week later he caught two TDs against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The first was a back-shoulder reception just inside the pylon at the goal line. (Dobson had dropped a couple of previous back-shoulder passes.) The second TD happened because Dobson read the defense pre-snap and made a route adjustment that Brady expected him to make.
Boyce lags behind his rookie classmates, as he was inactive for several games. Injuries to others have given the speedster opportunities to contribute the past two weeks. Sunday, Boyce caught four passes for 42 yards but had three drops, including a touchdown. If Brady and the New England offense is to take advantage of rookie's speed on the outside, Boyce needs to develop quickly and catch up to Thompkins and Dobson.
It's on the perimeter where these rookies can really help the offense. Amendola and Edelman are ideal slot receivers, with their sharp routes and quickness in and out of breaks, but they would have more room to operate with outside threats keeping defenses honest.
The first step is getting the youngsters back on the field. Dobson and Thompkins are recovering from foot and hip injuries, respectively. At this time of year, just about everyone is nicked up. It might take for them to play hurt, but they have to fight through the pain and tough it out to help the team.
A good look at New England’s locker room should be all the inspiration they need. (“Next man up” has been repeated more than “when I’m gone” in Anna Kendrick’s “Cups.”) A seriously hobbled Patriots team needs all the help it can get from any able-bodied player for the rest of the season and the playoffs.
New England visits the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. In last season’s AFC Championship Game, Baltimore packed the middle of the field, stifling the Patriots' passing game. Dobson, Thompkins and Boyce have to be productive and force the Ravens defense to pay attention to them. Doing so spreads the defense and opens up the field for Brady to pick the secondary apart.
Brady no longer has Gronkowski to throw to. But if the rookie receivers play like they are no longer in awe of being in the NFL, the offense should be good enough.
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