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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Let's start with this: Rob Gronkowski's talents are so unique and impactful that the New England Patriots can't replace him. The best they can do is redefine their approach without him.
Gronkowski broke his forearm on the final extra point of the team's 59-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, a source confirmed to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, and now the Patriots face the not-so-pleasant idea of "life without Gronk."
How long that will be the case remains unclear, but here's a quick snapshot of what the Patriots will be missing for the immediate future: A player who hardly ever leaves the field, their best blocker at the position, a lethal red-zone threat and a 6-foot-6, 265-pound matchup nightmare for the opposition. The off-the-charts statistics need no buffering -- 53 catches for 748 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, with 7 catches, 138 yards and 2 touchdowns coming Sunday in yet another dominating performance.
So where do the Patriots go from here?
It would help if jack-of-all-trades tight end Aaron Hernandez returns from a right ankle injury, which could come as soon as Thursday night against the New York Jets. Hernandez is receiver-like and could pick up some of the pass-catching slack; he's not a towering presence in the red zone but shiftier in the open field and dangerous after the catch. Yet he doesn't come close to offering the powerful blocking of Gronkowski.
Six-year veteran Daniel Fells (a healthy scratch Sunday) might be able to come close to Gronkowski's blocking prowess, but he can't match the pass-catching ability. Perhaps that's where 32-year-old Visanthe Shiancoe, known more for his receiving skills than in-line blocking, comes into the picture at times. The team also has third-year man Michael Hoomanawanui at the position.
|Rob Gronkowski could be on the sidelines for the next month or more.|
It is rare for a team to carry five tight ends on its 53-man active roster, as the Patriots are now, which softens the blow a bit. Had this been last season, when the Patriots didn't have a consistent pure backup to Gronkowski and Hernandez, it might have been more catastrophic.
The issue, of course, is that not all of the tight ends can be on the field at the same time unless Bill Belichick has the four-tight-end package up his hoodie sleeve. That's part of what makes Gronkowski so special -- he's like two players rolled into one, able to hurt the opposition in multiple ways. Leave him on the field and the options are plentiful, which also keeps the defense unsure of what's coming.
The Patriots now become a little more predictable, a lot less dangerous, when in the multiple-tight-end package they had hoped would be their base attack when the season opened.
"Rob is obviously a special player, so when he goes down, it will obviously hurt," Hoomanawanui said after Sunday's victory. "But we have a lot of depth and a lot of guys anxious to fill in and help this team win. Hopefully we can get Aaron back. We'll just say a prayer and keep moving on."
Another factor to consider is that the Patriots, who pride themselves on having a "game-plan" offense, could transform into more of a receiver-heavy attack.
In recent weeks without Hernandez, they've favored a third receiver over a second tight end for a majority of snaps anyway. Given the way No. 3 receiver Julian Edelman played Sunday versus the Colts -- he was one of the team's star performers (5 catches, 58 yards, TD; 1 rush, 47 yards) -- a larger opportunity might await him in the game plan.
Edelman, of course, was cutting into Wes Welker's snaps in the first two games of the season before a hand injury sidelined him for three games. He was slowly reintroduced into the mix upon his return Oct. 21 versus the New York Jets, and with No. 3 receiver Deion Branch released Saturday after injuring his hamstring in practice, the timing was right for Edelman's breakthrough Sunday.
"He missed some time there and he's really worked hard to do everything to get back," coach Bill Belichick said, citing Edelman's contributions Sunday as a punt returner (68-yard return for a touchdown), down-field receiver, a dangerous option on slip screens and blocking. "He obviously had a real productive day and we needed that. It's good to complement some of the other production we had out there."
And that's really what it comes down to for the Patriots without Gronkowski in the coming weeks -- putting together the best complementary package to account for a player whose impact is matched by few, if any, in the NFL.
One player can't fill those large football cleats. So whether it's Hernandez, Fells, Shiancoe or Hoomanawanui teaming up at tight end, or more Edelman as an extra receiver, this is as significant of an injury as the Patriots have confronted in recent years.
It would be a surprise if we see the authoritative touchdown spikes of Gronkowski in the coming weeks, perhaps longer, so how the Patriots fill the void now becomes one of the biggest questions facing the team.
We won't have to wait long for the initial answers because of the quick turnaround with the Thanksgiving night game against the Jets.
"When anyone, let alone Rob, goes down that's part of the business. One play, you never know; unfortunately it could happen," Hoomanawanui said. "You just have to be ready to step up and keep taking on whatever role the team needs you to play. We'll move on and be ready to fill in and get ready for the Jets on Thursday."