Herniated disc. Third back surgery. Out for the season.
News that All-Pro Tight Rob Gronkowski will miss the remainder of the 2016 season after undergoing back surgery has shaken the landscape of the NFL. In a year with no one team standing above the rest, the prevailing thought has been to favor Gronkowski’s New England Patriots. Why not? With Tom Brady, Bill Belichek and arguably the best non-quarterback in the NFL, it seemed like another Super Bowl was in the cards. Now, all of a sudden, it’s just Tom and Bill.
For over a decade and a half, the duo of Tom Brady and Bill Belichek have put fear into opposing teams, coaches and fans alike. They have reached ten AFC Championship games together, the most in history for a coach and quarterback, and have made it each of the last five seasons. Look around at the AFC and you will not find a single great team. The defending Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos can barely move the ball on offense, the once-vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers are just hoping to sneak into the playoffs, and the Oakland Raiders are putting together a phenomenal season but have no playoff experience to speak of. One could certainly make the case that the path to a seventh Super Bowl appearance for Brady and Belichek is being paved, but I see speed bumps ahead.
The Patriots are now missing their All-Pro Tight End, but they are also missing a defensive identity. Before Gronkowski was placed on Injured Reserve, there were still many doubts about the Patriots’ ability to stop a high-powered offense. Football Outsiders has New England ranked 21st in defensive DVOA, an all-encompassing stat that is widely considered the most accurate representation of a team’s performance. More importantly, they lack consistency in generating pressure from their front seven. In a shocking move about a month ago, the team traded away its defensive centerpiece, Jamie Collins. There was much speculation as to why Belichek pulled the trigger, and many believe it was a result of Collins becoming too much of a freelancer. So far there have been mixed results, but no one would dare claim this is one of Bill Belichek’s best defenses.
The Patriots have survived without a great defense in the past. Between Brady’s brilliance and Belichek’s unparalleled game planning, no task seems impossible. The difference now is a lack of playmakers. In the past, Randy Moss was lined up out wide, posing a deep threat as great as any in the history of the NFL. In recent years, it has been Rob Gronkowski drawing multiple defenders to free up space for New England’s speedy receivers. There is no way to understate the value of Gronkowski to the Patriots’ offense. He is a freak of nature, the likes of which we have not seen before at the Tight End position. He not only makes play after play, but receivers like Julian Edelman have far more space to work with when Gronkowski is on the field. It will be impossible to replace what he brought to the offense.
The Patriots were shaping up to be a team that could hide its subpar defense with an explosive aerial attack. Now, without arguably the best pass catcher in the NFL, Tom Brady and Bill Belichek will have their toughest task yet. If there is one duo in sports to never count out it’s the quarterback and coach in New England, but even they can’t win every year.