By Jason Keidel
With so much swirling around the Patriots this year, largely the residue of Deflategate, and the delicious possibility of Roger Goodell handing the Lombardi Trophy to Robert Kraft & Co., we forget the Pats got here sans their second-best player.
Rob Gronkowski played his last full game against the Seattle Seahawks on November 13. He was injured two weeks later against the New York Jets, and missed the rest of the regular season. He has not played in the playoffs.
So, of course, the Pats haven’t lost since. Their military ethic is simply astounding. Tom Brady misses the first four games. No sweat. A hybrid QB attack of Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett goes 3-1. When the machine burps, they simply reach back into the gridiron garage and grab a spare part.
Gronkowski, arguably the most potent tight end in NFL history, is Brady’s best and favorite weapon. Too big for corners to cover, too fast for linebackers to blanket, he has defensive coordinators speed-dialing their psychiatrists.
Yet to hear the media and the masses, you’d never know Gronk sat out for a quarter, much less a month. The Patriots so strongly adhere to the team ethos it feels like the entire team is literally interchangeable. The Patriots would not be here without Brady, of course, but if there were one other indispensable part of the unit, it was Gronkowski.
Imagine the Falcons reaching the Super Bowl without Julio Jones? The Steelers making the AFC title game without Le’Veon Bell? The Cowboys playing without Ezekiel Elliott?
And Gronk wasn’t just collecting a check when he got hurt. He had a monstrous October. In three straight games, against the Bengals, Bills and Steelers — hardly three creampuffs, two of which on the road — Gronk scored a TD in each game, averaged an absurd 23 yards per catch and had 362 yards. If you account for the game against the Cleveland Browns (October 9), Gronk had 471 yards in four games. Those are PlayStation stats for a tight end.
Sure, it’s nice to have Martellus Bennett on the pine, a virtual Pro-Bowl talent as backup TE. But Bennett doesn’t have Gronk’s maddening amalgam of size, strength and hands. Nor does Bennett have the subtle chemistry that Brady and Gronkowski cultivated over the last seven years.
While pro football is the quintessential team endeavor, the sport still trades on stars, knowing that fans flock to the stadium swathed in team colors and their favorite player’s jersey. You don’t think of the Colts without Manning and Luck, nor the Packers without Favre and Rodgers. Big Ben has been the Big Man for Pittsburgh for a dozen years, even with the influx of nuclear talent in Bell and Antonio Brown.
So it is with Tom Brady, who is as identifiable as a Patriot as the Patriots patriarch, Robert Kraft, or the architect, Bill Belichick. For as long as the passing game has flourished, quarterbacks have leaned on some security blanket. Namath to Maynard. Bradshaw to Swann. Montana to Rice. Aikman to Irvin. Manning to Harrison. Rodgers to Nelson.
And while the more popular and prolific pass-catchers tend to be wideouts, more than one world champion has included a stellar tight end. Remember Brent Jones with the Niners. Recall Jay Novacek with those great Dallas teams. Even Dallas Clark was quite handy in the flat for Manning, catching nearly 500 passes from Peyton, as well as 64 balls in the playoffs.
Brady to Gronk, or not, if the Patriots finish this surreal season with a Super Bowl victory, it could rank at the top of their epic achievements over the last 17 years. Not only did Brady suffer the suspension, missing a quarter of the season, but he’s also 39, and had to form new bonds with Bennett and WR Chris Hogan, a reformed lacrosse player who, like most, couldn’t wait to flee Cleveland and play for a real NFL club.
Even those who live well west of Foxborough, or would root for anyone else over the Patriots, have to marvel at their ability to plug almost any hole on the football field. It speaks to coaching, to management, to leadership, to an esprit de corps that comes from the top, from the owner to the QB who’s owned the sport since Y2K. Just one more win and the Pats will have no peers, even with Gronk doing his TD dances from the sideline.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.