FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots always stress that no one player is more valuable than the next.
Rob Gronkowski may be the exception to that rule.
With the tight end in their lineup for six-plus games, the Patriots’ offense finally resembled what most New England fans have come to expect. Tom Brady was completing more passes for more yards and more touchdowns, the Patriots were scoring more points, and there was a reasonable expectation that this team could go deep into the playoffs.
But Gronkowski’s season-ending knee injury in last Sunday’s 27-26 win over Cleveland changed all that. Many football observers feel New England’s chances of winning the Super Bowl this year ended when Gronkowski went down. And the stats could back them up.
Nonetheless, Brady insists the Patriots will be OK.
“I would say our offense is pretty much our offense, so the other guys that are going to be in there filling that role and playing tight end for us have to do a great job,’’ he said. “We always try to find ways to use a guy’s skill set, and we run it decent at times, we throw it decent at times … We still have confidence that we can go out and win games.’’
But the numbers might suggest otherwise. When Gronkowski missed the first six games of the season while recovering from offseason surgeries to his right forearm and back, the Patriots averaged 20.8 points per game (ranked 22nd in the 32-team NFL), the passing offense averaged 228.3 yards per game (19th) and New England had scored just 11 touchdowns. Brady was completing just 56.9 percent of his passes, with an average of 6.19 yards per attempt and a rating of 79.5.
After the Gronk Effect for six-plus games, the Patriots are now averaging 26.8 points (fifth), passing for 265.9 yards (eighth) and have scored 37 touchdowns. Brady’s completion rate is up to 60.8, he averages 7.05 yards per attempt and has a rating of 88.3.
So in the games that Gronkowski played, Brady completed 64.8 percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns and 2,205 yards. His average per attempt was 7.76 yards. And New England averaged 32.8 points a game.
THERE’S MORE THAN GRONK
The thing to remember is that the offense is in much better shape now than it was at the start of the year. When Gronkowski missed the first six games, running back Shane Vereen missed the last five of them and wide receiver Danny Amendola missed three. Both are now healthy and contributing mightily.
And then there’s Julian Edelman, who has surpassed every preseason expectation, and is ranked sixth in the NFL with 76 catches for 775 yards and five touchdowns.
Still, Gronkowski’s presence opened the field for all the other receivers. Without him, what can we expect?
Look for Vereen, Edelman and Amendola to carry the bulk of the receiving game. In the last three games the three have been targeted by Brady 85 times, catching 61 for 632 yards and five touchdowns, three by Edelman.
Edelman and Amendola will continue to operate in the slots, underneath the zones. Vereen causes matchup nightmares for every team. He’s a running back in position only, often lining up as a wide receiver and having a linebacker attempting to cover him man-to-man.
He has, in particular, provided a jolt to the offense. In Sunday’s win over Cleveland he set franchise records for most catches (12) and receiving yards (153) by a running back.
“Shane does a good job,’’ said Coach Bill Belichick. “He’s got good quickness, he’s got good instinctive receiver skills, kind of when to make decisions relative to leverage he’s being played with, the coverage – man, zone – linebacker leverage and so forth.’’
Rookie wide receivers Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce also need to step up their play. Dobson has missed the last two games with an injury and his status for Sunday’s game in Miami is still undetermined. Thompkins missed last week’s game but has returned to practice, and Boyce, perhaps the most physically gifted of the three, had his best game as a pro against Cleveland.
They need to stretch the field out to allow Amendola and Edelman to operate underneath.
And then there are the remaining tight ends, which include Maine native Matthew Mulligan, veteran Michael Hoomanawanui (who’s missed the last three games with a knee injury) and newly signed D.J. Williams.
None of them have Gronkowski’s receiving skills. Mulligan has made his reputation as a blocker and has just two catches for the season.
But Brady said their roles may have to expand.
“You have to try to figure out what we’re going to do to still get the level of production that’s good enough to win,’’ he said. “They’ve been able to contribute (in) the role that they’ve been in, that we’ve asked them to do. I know now the role’s going to be more. You’re going to play more because Gronk’s not in there, so someone’s got to be in there. That will fall on the backs, that will fall on the tight ends, that will fall on the receivers, anyone who’s got an opportunity to produce while they’re out on the field.
“If you’re an eligible receiver, then you’ve got to do something with it. So we either run it better or throw it better or catch it better or run with it after the catch. (Gronkowski’s absence) is not going to be an excuse for us, I know that.’’
Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at: