New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski suffered an ankle injury in the third quarter of his team’s AFC championship game win over the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday. It looked serious at first glance, and he indeed left Gillette Stadium that night with his foot in a walking boot.
Gronkowski, we now know, suffered a sprained ankle but not a high ankle sprain. There is some ligament damage, as is the case with any sprain, but with two weeks to recover and a relatively mild injury, there’s a good chance Gronkowski could be close to 100 percent when his team meets the New York Giants in the Super Bowl on February 5th.
But even if his recovery doesn’t go as planned and Gronkowski is limited in the game, the Patriots’ chances to win aren’t in as much trouble as it first seems.
Gronkowski’s emergence in 2010, but especially in 2011, has a lot to do with the Patriots’ ability to make do with the personnel they have available. Quarterback Tom Brady has thrown passes to a dizzying array of receivers and tight ends in his 11 seasons with the team, and has done so at a consistently high level despite the lack of stability.
And this season, he has some serious weapons at his disposal, ones who can more than make up for Gronkowski’s production, if not his considerable presence.
Gronkowski broke the single-season yardage record for a tight end this year and his 18 touchdowns are both the most recorded by a tight end in a season and has the second-most of any offensive player who isn’t a quarterback or kicker.
He’s made a major impact in the postseason as well, with 10 catches for 145 yards and three scores in the Patriots’ divisional round win over the Denver Broncos and five catches for 87 yards against the Ravens in the AFC championship.
It seems impossible that the other members of the Patriots offense could compensate for him being off the field or limited in the Super Bowl, but that’s not the case.
They have another extremely capable tight end in Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez is even more versatile than Gronkowski, able to assist in run and pass blocking, catch passes and carry the ball like a running back.
He won’t run you over like Gronkowski, but he’s got the speed of a traditional wide receiver and can blow past defenders, giving them little chance to immediately tackle him.
Hernandez has often proven the more difficult matchup for defenses. If Gronkowski is on the field, but is less than healthy, Gronkowski’s presence can easily serve as a decoy to draw coverage away from Hernandez, who would ultimately be on the receiving end of Brady’s passes.
There’s also wide receiver Wes Welker. Though Hernandez and Gronkowski made household names of themselves this season, Welker is still Brady’s most reliable receiver. While Welker has not had more than 55 receiving yards in the postseason, and just one score, he’s clearly going to be heavily involved in the team’s Super Bowl game plan.
Welker averaged 98.1 yards per game in the regular season; his low postseason production can be attributed to the success the team had passing to Gronkowski against the Broncos (a known mismatch going into the game) and the difficulty the Patriots had moving the ball against the Ravens and their top-tier defense.
The Giants defense is quite similar to that fielded by the Ravens and it could yet again be a struggle for Brady to have enough time to throw an accurate pass, but there’s no doubt that he will be able to connect with Welker a number of times, with significant results.
But the main reason that Gronkowski’s injury won’t damage the Patriots’ chances to defeat the Giants is simply because the Patriots are able to adapt. Some teams see one of their top players suffer an injury and the team as a whole cannot respond.
There’s a lack of depth, perhaps, or maybe even a lack of imagination on the coaching staff’s part that doesn’t allow them to see the ways they can utilize their other, healthy players to mitigate for the loss.
The Patriots don’t suffer from this lack of imagination, as evidenced first by the way they’ve revolutionized offensive strategy by practically taking traditional wideouts out of the equation and what they’ve needed to do this year on defense.
For a number of reasons, New England ended up having to field a defensive secondary made up of practice squad players, unknowns and also-rans. They’ve struggled, certainly, with the Patriots pass defense ranking 31st in the league in the regular season.
But they’ve found ways to make it work. Cornerback Sterling Moore started in just six regular season games for the team and didn’t do much to stand out.
However, from Week 17 through the AFC championship game, he’s broken up two passes per game, including what would have been a Lee Evans Ravens touchdown, one that could have won the game for Baltimore, last week.
Patriots players know when to step up, and the Patriots coaching staff knows just where their many components on the roster will fit best. With or without Gronkowski, the Patriots are still the Patriots. They adapt while teams around them struggle to catch up.
If Gronkowski isn’t on the field in the Super Bowl, or if he’s not fully healthy, the Patriots will still find a way to accomplish what they set out to do. Should they lose, it won’t be Gronkowski’s injury that causes it.