Commentary

Moving on without Gronkowski

Updated: December 10, 2013, 10:59 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Tight end Rob Gronkowski's season-ending torn ACL and MCL is potentially season-altering for the New England Patriots. Their Super Bowl hopes just became a lot tougher to achieve as it doesn't take an expert to figure out that the Patriots aren't as good without Gronkowski.

That's why there were essentially two main storylines on Sunday -- the Patriots' thrilling, improbable 27-26 victory over the Browns and life without Gronkowski.

A few days removed from the game, most of the focus is on where the Patriots go from here without Gronkowski.

Q: Hey Mike. After the past four weeks, there's no doubt in my mind that this year's Patriots are exceptionally mentally tough. However, after watching Seattle a lot, and San Francisco beating the Seahawks last week, and Carolina and Cincinnati turning heads, I'm concerned that we're not up to the caliber of those teams. I mean, watching these guys just beat the living daylights out of each other and their opponents, makes me feel like we just don't have the personnel to match up with them. Offensively, maybe but defensively, it just feels like we lost our swag and if we can't get off the field to give Brady and company chances then it's over. Thoughts? -- Tye N (Kahului/Hawaii)

A: Tye, I understand the thoughts because it was something that crossed my mind, as well. Here's the main thing to keep in mind: As we just saw with Rob Gronkowski, the picture can change in an instant for every team. What you saw Sunday might not look the same on Super Bowl Sunday seven weeks from now. Who knows what dynamics might be in play on that day -- snow, injuries, etc. That's why you just try to survive on a week-to-week basis, string games together, and give your team a chance to be the better one in that next 60 minutes of football you're playing.

Q: Mike, for a while I have thought that Gronkowski was very vulnerable to lower leg injuries. He is just too big and strong for most defensive backs to tackle up high. In the Houston game he took a hard hit to the legs and got up limping. Is there anything the Patriots can do to try and minimize these injuries going forward? Maybe utilize him in a different way, have him run different routes? If you send him flying down the middle of the field again, he is going to get hit low and get hurt again. -- Scott (Pasadena, Calif.)

A: Scott, I'm not sure there is anything that can be done other than accepting that this is part of the rules of the game -- for now. Maybe this is similar to what we talked about with receiver Danny Amendola after he sustained a concussion Oct. 13; should a player change the mentality with which he plays to account for preservation? But there is always a fine line with that, and when players start thinking along those lines, they are often more vulnerable.

Q: Hi Mike, I don't consider the hit on Rob Gronkowski by T.J. Ward to be dirty, but a lot of the talk about the hit seems pretty disingenuous. A number of people (sports pros, fans, Ward himself) have stated that Ward had to hit him low due to the new rule changes. Over and over I've heard people imply that a defender has only two places to hit the ball carrier, in the knees or in the head. Since hits to the head are no longer legal, the only option left is the knees. One local sports broadcaster blamed the injury on the "wussification of the NFL" i.e. the new rules concerning hits to the head. This sort of thinking is ridiculous. Hits to the head need to be removed from the game and hits to the knees need to be removed from the game. Why is that so hard to figure out? Players can't hit QBs in the knees. Gronkowski is a big guy and the area between his knees and his neck provide a big target. Ward hit Gronkowski that low because he knew that hit would stop Gronkowski and he knew he would have less of a chance of injuring himself making that sort of tackle. Your thoughts? -- Greg (Stoughton, Mass.)

A: Greg, I would have liked to have seen Ward go higher than that, but those are split-second decisions and things are happening so fast on the field. I don't think he deliberately was thinking, "I am going for a direct shot on the knee" as much as he was thinking, "The best way for me to win this high-powered collision is to be in the lower leg area" -- and it was just a bad break for Gronkowski. I lean toward the thought that it was just a football play and these unfortunate things happen in the game, but could Ward have aimed higher and avoided the injury? Sure.

Q: Mike, I am not buying the "league makes players hit low for fear of getting fined if hits are to the head" line of thinking. Why not aim for his shoulders, chest, ribs, stomach, waist, hips, or thighs? For a player Gronks size, that certainly gives a defender a pretty large area to tackle. Your thoughts? -- Mark (Mass.)

A: Mark, I wouldn't blame the NFL for this. Players can absolutely tackle higher. The thinking, however, is that they are less likely to make the tackle if they do. Maybe not the best analogy, but if someone was trying to stop a getaway car, there's a reason they aim for the wheels.

Q: Hi Mike Is there any timeline for Gronk's surgery? Will the doctor's be able to repair both the ACL and The MCL at one time or separately? Obviously, if they are repaired separately, it will be a longer recovery period which would cause Gronk to miss some time in 2014. -- Jim C. (Seminole, Fla.)

A: Jim, everything regarding a timetable is speculative at this point.

Q: Hi Mike, the old adage "the bigger they are, the harder they fall" has never been more true than with Gronkowski in his injury torn short Patriot history. It is awful for him and the team but how does management really assess this issue contract-and-retention wise going forward? Mr. Kraft/Belichick uncharacteristically and unwisely locked the team into a long and costly contract far too soon. Given his lack of playing time, often at critical times, is there any option possible of reworking his contract by lessening its yearly toll and thereby reduce his contract's financial cost and provide cap space for other important player [moves]? -- Jake Malone (Vancouver, B.C.)

A: Jake, as we look at Gronkowski's contract, the key time frame is the end of the 2015 season. That's when a $10 million option bonus is due. The deal is backloaded and structured to protect both parties -- the team if Gronkowski sustained multiple injuries, and Gronkowski and his earning upside if he kept producing. The way the deal is structured doesn't really handcuff either side.

Q: Hi Mike, as the reality of a Gronk-less remainder of the season sets in everyone is wondering what exactly the Patriots will do to, as Brady says, "change the formula." I'm wondering how much they will look at using James Develin going forward. Do you see shades of Heath Evans in him? -- Kevin Hollingsworth (Los Angeles, Calif.)

A: Kevin, it makes sense that we'll see more two-back groupings, with Develin, than we would have with a healthy Gronkowski. The fullback and tight end positions are linked in many ways. Also, if Develin keeps making plays like his 31-yard out-and-up catch in the third quarter, he'll definitely see a spike in playing time. On the comparison to Heath Evans, I think Develin is a little more fluid in his movements and has better hands, while Evans was probably better as a pure rusher.

Q: Obviously more guys will have to step up with Gronk out for the season. Is there a chance WR Josh Boyce gets more playing time? I thought he looked pretty good when he was in the game on Sunday. How do you feel he played? -- Adam M. (Framingham State)

A: Adam, I thought Boyce did some good things in his most extended action of the season. Through the first 11 games of the season, I had charted him on the field for a total of 71 snaps. In Sunday's win, he had 72. So it was the most we'd seen him and there are some good things there. I think Boyce's future playing time is tied less to Gronkowski's absence and more to the health of receivers Aaron Dobson (foot) and Kenbrell Thompkins (hip) since they are ahead of Boyce on the depth chart.

Q: Upon the news of Rob Gronkowski being placed on IR, someone needs to step up. Rather than looking at a skill player, I think it all starts (and probably ends) with the offensive line. Before the season started, many of the questions were based on Tom Brady's new receivers. Yet this late into the season, the line continues to play inconsistently. Without Gronk's presence they must start to work more cohesively as a unit. It seems that they are allowing sacks at an astounding rate. What's worse is many of the sacks given up aren't based on good coverage as opposed to a breakdowns in protection. Brady has proven to still find ways to win even with new receivers, but he can only help if given time. Do you agree? -- Alvin (Amherst, Mass.)

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesThe Browns sacked Tom Brady four times on Sunday.

A: I do agree, Alvin. In Sunday's 27-26 win over the Browns, we could look at the offensive linemen and highlight one or two plays when each had a breakdown that led to a sack, hurry or penalty. Sometimes the credit should go to the other team as, well; the Browns have a big and powerful front, but I also expect more from such a talented Patriots unit. Still, when the O-line needed to step up most on the final two drives, it was very good. One thing to look toward in the weeks to come is the return of right tackle Marcus Cannon from an ankle injury. That should help.

Q: Do you think Bill is questioning his decision to waive Zach Sudfeld aka "Little Gronk"? If he hadn't tried to get cute by sneaking Sudsy through waivers to the practice squad, Zach likely would have caught up by now and perhaps be contributing similarly to how he was in the first few preseason games. You could make the argument that he hasn't really done much for the Jets to this point, but with how Geno is playing and their offense is performing, that's not really a surprise either. He seemed raw and the game seemed too fast for him in the first few games, but by now you'd think he'd be a better option than DJ Williams. -- Dave Rogers (Sonora, Calif.)

A: Dave, I don't think there are any Patriots-based regrets there. A team-builder is always going to have to balance elements of the long- and short-term when making roster decisions, and while the Patriots would have liked to keep working with Sudfeld, he wasn't special enough to potentially risk what was needed that week to win in the short term. I think what they'll get from players like Matthew Mulligan, Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams will be comparable, if not a step up, from what you'd get from Sudfeld at this point. Sudfeld is hardly playing with the Jets; he's been on the field for 20 offensive snaps the last four games.

Q: Gronk joins Wilfork, Mayo and Hernandez as the perennial losses for the season. Should the Pats add any pass-catching weapons (i.e. Moss, Lloyd, Branch) before heading into the playoffs? Brady is playing remarkable since that amazing comeback vs. the Broncos and I feel the team will adapt as always. -- Matt Howie (Buffalo, N.Y.)

A: Matt, I don't think they need any additions. With rookies Dobson (foot) and Thompkins (hip) returning to health at some point, I think they have enough receivers.

Q: Hi Mike, prior to Sunday's game, I felt the Patriots' draft priorities would be interior offensive line and defensive tackle. Does the Gronk's latest injury, coupled with the loss of Hernandez, change the draft priorities? -- Gary (East Hanover, N.J.)

A: Gary, I don't think they change, but it's a good reminder that the team's other tight ends on the depth chart -- Mulligan and Hoomanawanui -- have contracts that expire after the season. I haven't seen if D.J. Williams' contract extends into 2014, which would make sense. Regardless, those tight ends could always come back, in addition to the team looking to the draft. We know how strongly they feel about the position.

Q: Mike, with Gronkowski out for the year, the salary cap charges for the players on injured reserve climbs to $27 million. Combine that with the 2013 cap charges for the players no longer with the team (e.g. Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd, etc.) and the 2013 cap charge for players unavailable becomes approximately $43 million or 40 percent of the cap used by the Patriots so far in 2013. These numbers show me that the coaching staff and the players are doing a job for the history books. Can you think of another team that has excelled with such adversity? Can they keep it going? -- Jim C (Centennial, Colo.)

A: Jim, anything is possible, and at the same time, the reality is that the injuries make it much tougher for this team. Bill Belichick and his staff are coaching their tails off. I'm sure other organizations have faced a similar run of injuries, but no team comes to mind. These numbers reinforce the thought that after the quarterback position, the most important ingredient for any team just might be quality depth. The role of the coaching staff, and how players are developed, is a big part of that.

Q: Hi Mike, we, as Patriots fans, feel our team is one of the best coached in the NFL. However, through 13 games, I see consistent mistakes that the coaches don't seem able to eliminate. On offense, the pass protection schemes involving pulling linemen seem to break down at least twice a week resulting in drive-killing sacks and risk to Brady. On defense, it's been the total inability to shut down the screen pass on third and long. Is it coaching or poor execution? -- Gary (East Hanover, N.J.)

A: Gary, I'd lean more toward execution. Obviously, no coaching staff is perfect, as we saw with the 12 men-on-the-field penalty in the second quarter Sunday. And sometimes you just have to give credit to the other team because they're going to make plays, too. But overall, this staff is top-notch.

Q: Mike, make me feel better! 32nd in 3rd down defense, 31st in rushing D. Five or so years knowing the defense was not a championship unit and here we are worse than ever. I was excited about our two recent awesome comebacks until I woke up the next day and remembered the opposition was in the bottom four in the league. I know we beat a couple of good teams but even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while (see the Texans and Browns the last 2 weeks, Almost!) I know about all the injuries but like I said 5 years or more, the roster has probably rolled over 70 percent. 31st and 32nd c'mon! -- Gary (Glenmoore, Pa.)

A: Gary, I feel differently about this year's defense because of the injuries. I thought this was a top-10 unit at the start of the season, but what has happened is the equivalent of taking Tom Brady away from the offense. Tough to recover from that, so you just try to survive. I'd focus on turnovers and situational play. They aren't a shutdown unit, but can they make a few plays per game to keep points down? That's probably the most positive spin that can be put on it. The D hasn't looked too good on a consistent basis in recent weeks.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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