Regardless of the fact that tight end Rob Gronkowski broke his forearm on Sunday, everything still seems peachy for the Patriots, right? They’re 7-3, and they’ve pretty much wrapped up the AFC East division title already.
But the Patriots and their fans aren’t exactly going to shoot their muskets off for a 10th division title in 12 years while a decade-long Super Bowl drought continues for the perennial contenders.
Gronkowski — who had surgery on Monday — is only expected to miss 4-6 weeks and be back for the playoffs, but it’ll be those six weeks that’ll define the Patriots’ season. Not because there’s any doubt that they’ll be in the playoffs but because of what they might be once the playoffs begin.
The Patriots are not defined by their defense, which ranks 28th in the NFL. They’re a team that enjoys success behind the NFL’s best offense, which is predicated around two of the league’s best tight ends. The same two that set records last season and all through the playoffs before Gronkowski limped into their loss to the Giants in the big game.
Luckily for the team, a hobbled Aaron Hernandez — making his second attempt at shaking a bothersome ankle that’s kept him out of six games — told the Boston Herald that he’s “feeling pretty good” about returning this Thursday at the Jets.
That would be just in time to pick up some slack and regain his form, and the team needs him to do so with four key upcoming games against two divisional rivals (Jets and Dolphins) and two of the NFL’s powerhouses (Texans and 49ers).
During that time, the Patriots’ offense will be adjusting without its main offensive weapon.
“It will change some things. Everyone has to step up. Whatever the change is, we just have to make plays and fill that void that we’re going to be missing,” Hernandez told the Boston Herald on Monday. “We have a lot of great players. Everyone has to step up. We’re going to be missing a great player, so everyone has to step up that much more.”
Schematically, Hernandez won’t exactly be stepping into Gronkowski’s role as the two play different positions within the team’s two-tight end system. Gronkowski plays at the traditional “Y” position, which features a player who has to be at least 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds, can run and be an exceptional blocker. He also has to be a viable receiver, but not necessarily a great one.
Hernandez plays as the “F” or flex tight end, who is at least 6-foot-3, around 235 pounds, a good runner and superb receiver. He doesn’t need to be a good blocker.
Unless coach Bill Belichick wants to scrap the system for the next month or more, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui will fill Gronkowski’s position. Visanthe Shiancoe is the team’s only other flex.
Still, Hernandez will need to take on the tall task of replacing Gronkowski as the team’s top playmaker. Gronkowski had been the main cog in the Patriots’ high-octane offense. He had reeled in 10 touchdowns, which is just one shy of what the rest of the Patriots’ pass-catchers have combined for the season. He also leads the team in catches of 20-plus yards with 12.
Moving forward, the defensively challenged yet playoff-bound Patriots will eventually need those two at their best. Neither of them is right now, but Hernandez can begin to change that this week.