Why the Return of Rob Gronkowski Means Everything to the New England Patriots

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Why the Return of Rob Gronkowski Means Everything to the New England Patriots
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He is a tight end.

A graceful athlete with speed, hops and hands, he embarrasses linebackers and obliterates safeties. With his powerful frame and love of contact, he gets in line and crushes those who would tackle his running back.

He is a party guy.

He once took the stage at a Vegas nightclub, per TMZ, busted a few moves and then body-slammed his friend—landing on a broken arm he'd re-fractured weeks earlier. When Johnny Manziel made headlines by partying poolside in Las Vegas this past Memorial Day weekend, per NESN.com, he was there too.

He is a playboy.

SBNation writer Lana Berry attended his women's football clinic in 2013, which seemed to be as much about him meeting women as coaching them. The Internet will never forget the indelible image of his winning grin and bare, sculpted torso next to an adult film star wearing his jersey.

He is Gronk, and he is awesome.

Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots tight end, is on track to complete an astounding, Adrian Peterson-esque return from a Dec. 8 ACL and MCL tear.

Back in the spring, Bleacher Report Sports Injuries Lead Writer Will Carroll broke down Gronkowski's injury history and medical outlook:

Already participating in 11-on-11 practices, per ESPN.com's Mike Reiss, Gronkowski might not get his first taste of full-speed hitting until Week 1 of the regular season.

As Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Dave Siebert, M.D., explained in June, the jolts and twists of hitting are literally the last things to which you want to expose a reconstructed ACL. If he's running routes and catching balls against defenders, that means the former All-Pro is almost ready to tip the balance of power in the AFC back to the New England Patriots.

At least, that's what quarterback Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichick and Patriots fans everywhere hope.

 

A Human Mismatch

On the field, Gronkowski isn't just a two-way tight end—he's a human mismatch.

At 6'6", 265 pounds, Gronkowski is too big for most slot cornerbacks or free safeties to effectively cover. His speed, agility and sticky hands make him too much for linebackers to handle. In just 44 career starts he's hauled in 226 catches for 3,255 yards and an astounding 42 touchdowns.

Here's how his production compares to the top tight ends over that span:

Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report
Stats via Pro-Football-Reference.com

On a per-game basis, no tight end generated as much offense as Gronkowski.

Though Jimmy Graham, Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez caught passes a little more frequently, Gronk was the clear-cut leader in yards and touchdowns per game. Unlike a lot of his pass-catching tight end peers, he also finished in the top five of Pro Football Focus' run-blocking grades for his position (subscription required) in each of his first three seasons.

I asked Donte' Stallworth, a 10-year NFL veteran who played with Gronkowski in 2012, about what makes Gronk so dominant.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press/Associated Press
Donte' Stallworth hauls in a 63-yard TD pass for the Patriots in 2012.

"Everyone knows he's a physical guy," said Stallworth. "He has a knack for getting open, and he catches the ball well."

Stallworth raved about Gronkowski's on-field effort as well. "Being his teammate for the brief moment that I was, he's one of those guys you don't have to worry about giving his all," Stallworth said. "Every play, every game, he gives his all."

That certainly shows up in the box score. Had Gronkowski managed to stay healthy for all of 2013, he would have blown up the stat sheet. If for all 16 games he'd produced at the same pace he did in his six starts*, he'd have finished the season with 99 catches, 1,507 yards and 11 touchdowns.

*This disregards the Week 8 game against Miami, when he did not start and caught only two passes for 27 yards.

Per Pro-Football-Reference.com, that would have ranked him sixth in the NFL in receptions, second in receiving yards and tied for eighth in receiving touchdowns—not among tight ends, but among all NFL pass-catchers.

 

The Tao of Gronk

In the 2012 and 2013 offseasons, Gronkowski's off-field exploits were so numerous, so epic, that several websites started calling each summer "The Summer of Gronk." From posing nude for ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue to dancing onstage with party-music outfit LMFAO, Gronkowski seemed to be having fun everywhere, all the time.

In 2012, after signing him to a six-year, $53 million extension, the Patriots asked Gronkowski to tone it down going into the season, per Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe. Yet neither that request, nor his multiple injuries in 2012 and 2013, stopped his summertime fun. Is his zest for life a distraction?

"People always ask that about Gronk," Stallworth said. "'Does he party too much? Does it affect the way he plays?' I don't think it does. If it affected anything, Bill Belichick would be all over it. That he lets [Gronk] do his thing, that's very telling to me."

In fact, Gronkowski's gonzo approach to everything might be what makes him great.

"I've never seen that kid not be energetic," Stallworth said. "He loves what he does, he loves the game of football. He loves to practice, and he loves to play."

I asked Stallworth if the Patriots—a team led by Brady and Belichick, two notorious perfectionists—actually need Gronk to balance the mood in the locker room and on the field.

"Yeah, they need that," Stallworth said. "I think every team needs that. When other guys are getting down because things aren't going their way, he's the one that's going to keep them going. He gets the guys fired up with the way he plays the game."

 

The Winter of Gronk?

Last season, Gronkowski's absence weighed heavily on the team—and on Brady's production.

Chris Wesseling of NFL.com cited some incredible statistics:

According to numbers compiled by NFL.com, Brady posted a 65.7 completion percentage, a 23-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 106.6 passer rating with 7.9 yards per attempt on snaps with Gronkowski on the field. Those numbers plummeted to a 58.9 completion percentage, an 11-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and an 87.1 passer rating with 7.1 yards per attempt on snaps without Gronkowski. ...

... Since he entered the league in 2010, Gronkowski leads the NFL in red-zone touchdowns (29), quarterback-to-receiver completion percentage (72.2) and yards after contact per reception (2.54).

Brady's 2012 touchdown percentage was his lowest since 2009. His yards per attempt were at their lowest since 2008, and his completion percentage at its lowest since 2006.

It's that precipitous drop in production that caused PFF's Sam Monson, writing for ESPN Insider (subscription required), to conclude Brady is no longer a top-five NFL quarterback. Without Gronk, Brady and the Patriots didn't look nearly as unstoppable as in previous years, despite going 12-4 and making it to last year's AFC Championship Game.

Can Gronkowski's return put Brady back into top form and the Patriots back on top of the conference? It certainly couldn't hurt.

Uncredited/Associated Press
Gronkowski and Brady

"With him on the field, you'll never go wrong," Stallworth told me. "I'm a big supporter of his. He's a great kid, and he works his ass off."

Assuming Gronkowski's knee stays healthy—and nothing else on his seemingly superhuman body breaks down—he should be in line for a massive season. He matches up very well against the defenses of the AFC East, and the return of receivers Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman should keep opposing coordinators from stacking coverage against him.

It could be Brady's last hurrah. It could be the beginning of the end of the Belichick era. Per Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com, it could even be Gronkowski's last season in New England. But as long as Gronk is Gronk for all of 2014, there's no reason to believe he won't be the best tight end in football—and the Patriots won't be Super Bowl contenders.

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