IT'S UP TO COACHES TO ADJUST
The Patriots are literally entering uncharted territory in the absence of Rob Gronkowski.
The 23-year-old tight end has played in every game during the first two-plus seasons of his NFL career. The results have been fruitful, of course, as Gronkowski's production to start his career is virtually unmatched by any player in the history of the game. His 37 career touchdowns are the third-most by any player in NFL history in his first three seasons.
So with the hulking tight end -- and ultimate mismatch for opposing defenses -- out for Thursday night against the Jets with a fractured forearm, it's up to the Patriots' coaches to devise a game plan that spins the focus of the offense away from the tight end and into the hands of the receivers and running backs.
With the emergence of Julian Edelman in Week 11, the Patriots have an opportunity to operate primarily out of their three-receiver sets on offense, which also could benefit from the return of fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez.
But the Patriots' offense will be different in that without Gronkowski on the field, the team no longer has a two-phase tight end that can control the point of attack as a blocker and dominate in the passing game as well.
Rather than plugging a player such as Visanthe Shiancoe or Daniel Fells into Gronkowski's place and going about business as usual, the Patriots must find a way to alter their tactics slightly to refocus the offense. That may mean more spread sets, and if history is any indicator, no offense is better at adjusting for losses in personnel than the Patriots.
It's up to Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels & Co. to devise a game plan that can be effective without Tom Brady's most valuable target, especially in the red zone. Over the past two seasons, Brady has thrown to Gronk 30 times in the end zone, compared to just 49 targets for all other receivers. His completion percentage to Gronk is a whopping 66.7 and just 28.6 to all other pass-catchers. That obviously has to change going forward, and it's up to the coaching staff to figure out how.
PLAYERS MUST PICK UP SLACK
It has been a frequent sight over the past few seasons: coach Bill Belichick leaning over in front of the defensive bench, his back to whatever his offense happens to be up to on the field. There's a reason for that, and part of it probably has to do with confidence in offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
But a lot of trust also lies with quarterback Tom Brady. So while the onus will be on McDaniels to work around not having tight end Rob Gronkowski in his offense for the next several weeks, it will really be up to the other players on the offense to pick up the slack.
Here's what true about the offensive personnel: They're almost all veterans. Yes, even old-timers need coaching, but this is really about chemistry between Brady and his receivers.
What needs to happen? The Brady-to-Brandon Lloyd connection, which has been inconsistent even as Thanksgiving rolls around, needs to improve. The 31-year-old Lloyd and the 35-year-old Brady have surely been working on their rapport behind the scenes, but perfecting the subtleties between passer and pass-catcher are up to them, not McDaniels.
Likewise, the Patriots wisely kept veteran tight end Visanthe Shiancoe around despite an injury that kept him out three months. Their decision could now pay dividends, but again, McDaniels doesn't need to teach the 32-year-old Shiancoe how to play tight end in the NFL.
Shiancoe developed into a very good receiving tight end in the latter part of last decade, and now it's up to him and Brady to make it happen over the stretch run of this season. The 6-foot-4, 250-pounder showed on Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts that he could fill some of Gronkowski's roles in the offense, splitting out into the wing and the slot as a receiver while also working inline as a blocker.
McDaniels will be the conductor for this offensive orchestra, but keeping the melody despite Gronkowski will be up to the players on the field.