I figured we'd find the explanation in the All-22 game film, learn frame-by-frame that Rob Gronkowski's exclusion as a featured receiver during the Patriots' 31-30 loss to the Ravens Sunday was justified based on circumstances.
The Patriots' dynamic tight end is such an effective blocker that he would have a secure spot in the NFL even if he were merely an adequate receiver rather than an exceptional one. That aspect of his game the reason that the who's-better? debate between Gronk and the Saints' Jimmy Graham really is no debate at all.
If Gronkowski stays healthy -- yeah, I hate that qualifier too, but it's necessary at that particular position in this particular sport with his particular style of play -- he has a chance to be the greatest tight end in league history. Heck, 35 regular-season games and 29 touchdowns into his career, he's already in the argument.
Gronk The Blocker is sometimes necessary and, of course, absolutely no fun, because it prevents us from witnesses one of our favorite recurring football joys -- watching him destroy defensive backs like he was produced by Michael Bay en route to the end zone, leading to another celebration in which you're almost certain is usually prefaced by him mouthing the self-encouraging words, "THIS TIME ROB GRONK SPIKE FOOTBALL THROUGH GROUND!!"
But because of his ability to assist the offensive line in its sporadically successful quest to keep Tom Brady from being spindled, folded and mutilated, there will be times when his blocking takes precedence over his duties as a receiver. We get it.
But as it turned out, the truth was revealed before the All-22 became available, and it wasn't within a Hail Mary pass of what you expected. My colleague Greg Bedard noted in the essential Wednesday analysis column he writes after watching the game again that Gronkowski "didn't pass block that much at all." Mike Reiss drew the same conclusion with numbers at ESPN Boston: Of the Patriots offense's 49 snaps, Gronkowski stayed in to protect just 16 times.
In other words, he ran 33 routes, and was targeted on the following plays:
- 9:45 second quarter: T.Brady pass short left to R.Gronkowski to NE 24 for 9 yards (E.Reed, J.McClain).
- 1:37 second quarter: T.Brady (shotgun) pass short right to R.Gronkowski to NE 31 for 12 yards (D.Ellerbe, B.Pollard).
- 2:06 fourth quarter: T.Brady (shotgun) pass incomplete short right to R.Gronkowski (B.Pollard, P.Kruger).
That's it. Three targets, two receptions, 21 yards.
That's the same number of targets and catches as Deion Branch. That's one more target and catch than Kellen Winslow Jr., who had been with the team less than a week. It's one more catch than Michael Hoomanawanui, whose name I may have actually spelled right there.
It's one more catch -- and 15 fewer touches -- than Danny Woodhead, and two fewer receptions, four fewer touches, and four fewer targets than Julian Edelman, the undersized, limited, semi-useful role players who have apparently become Josh McDaniels's new favorite toys in some weird quest to add additional degrees of difficulty to the Patriots' offense. Perhaps he thinks the AFC East is now a 6-feet-and-under division?
Thirty-three routes run. Three targets. And that follows the Week 2 loss to the Cardinals in which he had two first-half targets before the Patriots took him out of the garage when the game was in doubt. You see Gronk at the Dunkin' Donuts drive-thru more often these days than you do with the football on Sundays.
That has to change. Unless Gronk is still experiencing some lingering effects of the ankle injury that in effect cost the Patriots a fourth Super Bowl -- he's healthy, they win, and it's that simple -- there's no excuse not to emphasize him more, even to the point of forcing the ball his way from time to time. He's the best weapon the Patriots have. He's arguably the best weapon any team has. He's often open when he's covered. Throw it his way, throw it high, and he'll be dragging helpless defensive backs toward the end zone like a dad horsing around with the neighborhood kids just as he did last year, when he had 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns.
I recognize that there's only one football to go around. Gronk's limited role thus far can be justified to some degree when it's Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd -- who combined for 17 catches for 250 yards Sunday -- who are targeted instead. Both are outstanding players, though I could spend another 1,000 words on the attempted marginalization of Welker. But when Gronkowski is an afterthought to Woodhead and Edelman, well, that's as damn frustrating as anything unrelated to the replacement officials that has happened to the Patriots season.
You, me, and Chad Jackson know the Patriots offense is complicated. McDaniels is making it too much so. Edelman and Woodhead are fine complementary players. Give 'em a well-placed couple of plays. But jeez, don't make it more complicated than it needs to be. Rob Gronkowski is on your side, and the opposition is grateful every time you forget that.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.