FOXBORO -- The return of Rob Gronkowski will mean several things for not just the Patriots passing game, but the offense in general.
Gronkowski, who underwent multiple surgeries in the offseason, reportedly has a 50-50 chance of playing this week against the Bucs. And no disrespect to Michael Hoomanawanui, Zach Sudfeld and the rest of the tight ends on the roster, but as a result, the big tight end has the potential to serve as a game-changer for a New England offense that has struggled to maintain consistency over the first two weeks of the regular season.
On Wednesday, Gronkowski was noncommittal about a potential timetable for his return.
“I’ve progressed significantly since last week,” he said Wednesday afternoon following another padded practice with the rest of the roster. “That’s all I can ask for out of myself, and that’s what the coaches are asking for, and the training staff. I’m improving every single week. I’m working hard and progressing and doing the best of my ability what I can.
“So far, there’s nothing really new to report. I’m just day-to-day, and progressing every week, and I’ve progressed significantly since last week,” he added. “I’m just improving every week, I feel good every week and when everyone collaborates together and I feel ready to go, that’s when it’ll be. I had a good day [Wednesday] and I’ve got to look forward to [Thursday] of what I can do to improve [Thursday].”
“It’s great to have him out there,” said quarterback Tom Brady. “It’s fun to see him out there running around being a part of our offense, so whenever he’s back healthy enough to play -- and that decision is not up to me, who knows when it’s going to be, hopefully it’s sooner rather than later.”
But what will change? First, let’s start with personnel issues: it will restore a sense of normalcy to the New England passing game, which had become tight end-centric the last few seasons. Through two games in 2012, the Patriots’ tight ends had a combined 18 catches on 23 targets, as well as 194 receiving yards and three touchdowns. This year, they’ve had one catch on four targets -- a five-yard reception from Hoomanawanui.
”I think any time you have a player that can make the kind of impact that Rob has made in the past, if you have a player like that back, it has to affect your plan, and hopefully only in a positive manner,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “I don’t know if it would affect the group that we use or not use or whether we would use a certain tempo or not. I don’t know that that would really be impacted, but I definitely think that you would like to have a guy like that on the field as much as you can if he is ready and able to contribute in the way that Rob has always been able to.”
It will mean fewer chances in the passing game for some of the younger players -- rookie receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson have been involved at an unprecedented level in the New England passing game. In addition, the Patriots have relied heavily on Julian Edelman through the first two games, allowing the former college quarterback to post the sort of numbers the Patriots have never seen from a receiver in the first two games of the regular season. But those numbers likely will take a dip with Gronkowski’s return.
In addition, his return will mean a decrease in snaps for the tight ends and fullbacks on the roster. While Sudfeld probably won’t be affected that much -- they are different sorts of tight ends -- the Hoomanawanui-James Develin-Matthew Mulligan grouping will see a cut in playing time, with the majority of their work now coming when New England downshifts into three-tight end sets.
But when Gronk is back on the field, how will the offense look different? Here are four ways the New England offense will change with the return of the Pro Bowler.
1. The seam route opens things up underneath. Gronkowski is the acknowledged master of the seam route, a pass play where the receiver lines up in the slot and is able to head downfield. More often than not, his mere presence is able to draw double coverage, and he’ll take a pair of defenders downfield with him. (If he doesn’t draw two defenders, in the past he’s proven to be nimble enough to be able to execute a catch-and-run with the quarterback that usually ends up picking up chunk yardage.) That creates a domino effect where space will open up underneath for receivers like Edelman or Danny Amendola, who could work in the area in back of the defensive line and in front of the linebackers without an issue. When Gronkowski returns, expect the Patriots passing game to utilize more underneath routes from their slot receivers.
2. His ability to move the chains. Even at half strength over much of the 2012 season, Gronkowski was able to consistently create first downs. He had 55 catches during the regular season last year, and 45 of them went for first downs. In 2011, 69 of his 90 catches went for first downs. In addition, the Patriots should see a noticeable spike in their yards after the catch. Long a staple of the New England passing game, Patriots pass catchers were some of the best in the league when it came to YAC over the last few seasons, particularly Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez. (Welker led the league in YAC in 2011 and 2012.) When healthy, Gronkowski has shown a nice ability to operate after the catch as well, as he finished the 2011 season fourth in the league in YAC -- 656 of his 1,327 receiving yards came after the catch that year.
3. Better blocking. While Gronkowski is celebrated for his pass-catching skills, it’s also important to remember that he’s considered one of the better blocking tight ends in the league. In many two- and three-tight end sets the Patriots have run over the year -- particularly in short-yardage situations -- he’s been utilized as an extra tackle and has shown an ability to go head-up on a defensive end.
4. Red zone threat. The return of Gronkowski would provide a sizable boost for the New England offense in the red zone. The Patriots have struggled through the first two games in the red zone -- they are 31st in the league in touchdown efficiency, having scored just two touchdowns in eight trips inside the red zone, a rate of 25 percent. (By way of comparison, both Houston and Kansas City lead the league at 100 percent, with the Texans having scored touchdowns on all seven of their trips inside the 20 and the Chiefs scoring touchdowns on all five of their trips.) Gronkowski is one of the best red zone targets in the league -- from 2010 through 2012, no one had more red zone touchdowns (29) than the big tight end. His skill in the red zone isn’t so much in his finesse or ability to get open in a small space. Instead, it’s his size and massive catch radius that allow him to overwhelm smaller defensive backs. And while he isn’t the fastest guy in the world, his burst is enough to create separation when he’s matched against linebackers.
When talking about Gronkowski’s early impact, it’s important to remember that even after he gets on the field again, the tight end will need time before he returns to his old Viking Warrior style -- while his teammates have had the luxury of hitting and getting hit for almost the last two months (as well as four preseason games and two regular-season contests), he has yet to engage at game speed.
“There’s nothing you can do to duplicate an NFL football season. You can’t,” Brady said when asked about Gronkowski’s reacclimation process. “For the training for it, it’s just, you have an offseason conditioning program and you train hard, but there’s nothing like training camp. There’s nothing like a real NFL game. That’s how you know how prepared you are, how prepared your body is. I think that’s what you try to simulate in practice, but ultimately what comes up in the game – it’s a faster speed, you’re on the clock on every single play, decisions are really quick and the stakes are at the highest, so you have to try to condition your body and your mind for that. Nobody can just show up and do that.”
“I feel closer. I feel way closer to playing than three weeks ago,” Gronkowski said. “I’m feeling way closer to playing, and it feels good. It feels good to be out on the field with my teammates, running around, catching balls from Tom, and it feels good to be with all the tight ends again. I’m having a blast out there, and like I said, I’m working to my max out there, working hard and just improving every day.”