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The New England Patriots Rob Gronkowski Dilemma

The New England Patriots Rob Gronkowski Dilemma
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski during the second half of a preseason NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016, in Foxborough, Mass. Photo: Winslow Townson / AP

Rob Gronkowski has added to a concerning catalogue of injuries after undergoing surgery for a herniated disk suffered in the Patriots’ week 10 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. On Saturday, the Patriots placed Gronkowski on season ending Injured Reserve.

The injury is believed to have come from the hit delivered from Seahawks’ safety Earl Thomas, a hit that also punctured Gronkowski’s lung.

An injured Gronkowski has become an all too familiar sight in New England since he was drafted back in 2010. His injury concerns were red flags that pushed Gronk to the second round of the draft, and it’s an issue that the Patriots were well of when they invested in the University of Arizona product.

When healthy there’s no doubting Gronkowski’s position as the game’s premier tight end. He’s the new physical prototype at the position. His physical attributes are more than impressive, they’re intimidating.

Gronk possesses an enormous frame, 6’6″ tall, a huge wingspan, and hands the size of saucepans, which gives him such a dominant catch radius. It’s cliche, but Gronkowski is almost impossible to cover single handedly. Put a linebacker on him, and he’ll leave him for dead with his speed, add an extra defensive back onto the field and the Pats can run the ball behind one of the best blocking tight ends in the game. A safety in man coverage? Nope, watch Tom Brady place the ball in a spot where only the 6’6″ guy has a chance of reigning it in.

In a Patriots offense predicated on matchup’s and utilizing those matchup’s in different scenarios, Gronkowski’s loss cannot be understated.

The Patriots have been considered not only AFC favorites, but clear Super Bowl LI favorites too. This loss, clearly changes that. The Patriots are not the same team without their charismatic tight end on board.

Remarkably, if we’re under the assumption that Gronk won’t feature in the 2016 playoffs, then only once in the last six seasons has Gronkowski been healthy during a playoff run. That one year in question…. 2014, their most recent Super Bowl victory.

It certainly begs the question, just what level of success could New England  have achieved with a healthy Gronk? They’ve already achieved appearances in 5 consecutive AFC Championship games, alongside 6 consecutive Wildcard Weekend byes. These streaks are still active.

A healthy Gronkowski in Super Bowl XLVI against the Giants could’ve easily have been the difference in a game that came down to a desperate Hail Mary throw. Tight losses in the 2012 and 2015 AFC Championship games could’ve been arguably flipped with a fully fit Gronkowski.

These are only hypotheticals of course, but they raise an important issue regarding the future of Gronkowski in New England. Bill Belichick’s tendencies to ship star players elsewhere at the first sign of large cap hits or decline in play, indicates that Gronk’s future in New England post 2017 is debatable.

The Patriots invested heavily in the two tight ends they drafted back in 2010, and consistent results haven’t been as fantastic as expected. The Aaron Hernandez debacle was obviously far more than a footballing issue, but with Gronkowski missing most of that 2013 season it had crippling side-effects on the offense.

If Belichick believes that New England are better served in the long term without a large investment in one of the games greatest, but albeit, slightly brittle stars then Gronkowski’s fate is likely sealed beyond 2017.

In terms of 2016, the Patriots have suffered a heavy, but not fatal blow in their quest for a 5th Lombardi trophy. The offense still has enough complex and skilled pieces in, Edelman, Hogan, Amendola, Bennett, Lewis, White, Blount and rookie Malcolm Mitchell to keep pace with the rest of the AFC.

Oh, and they also have a quarterback, who at the age of 39 continues to improve and fine tune his game as he chases history.

The AFC sure just got a whole lot closer and a whole lot more competitive. There’s little doubt that the Patriots will remain competitive, but the Patriots aren’t interested in competitiveness, they’re after a far greater prize.