You don’t have to ask Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski if he thinks he’s being targeted on offensive pass interference calls this season. He’ll give you his answer without provocation, and without hesitation.
Gronkowski was penalized twice for offensive pass interference against the Denver Broncos on Sunday night, including once on a would-be third-down conversion late in the game that would have sealed a Patriots victory.
Taking offsetting and declined penalties into consideration, Gronkowski has been flagged for a league-high six offensive pass interference penalties this season. That’s by far the most of any one player, and is also more than 29 other teams in the NFL.
There’s an increased focus on offensive pass interference this year, but it appears that focus has shifted toward Gronkowski in particular.
Gronkowski was called for the first offensive pass interference penalty vs. Denver on 2nd-and-9 from the 50-yard line, with 14:23 left in the second quarter. Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall got his hands on Gronkowski as well, right at the stem of the route. This call could have gone either way — or even have been a no-call — but there is no clear advantage gained by Gronkowski’s contact. In any case, the Patriots wound up punting after failing to convert on third down.
The same thing happened in the fourth quarter. Linebacker David Bruton Jr. got his hands on Gronkowski while the tight end was running upfield. Gronkowski had his left arm bent, and extended it as he ran toward the sideline. He didn’t have much of a choice here, though, with Bruton already clinging to him. This is another one that could go either way, but with contact from both players, the right call might have been no call.
A catch here might not have been the final nail in the coffin for the Broncos’ comeback attempt, but it would have been close to the end of the line.
Both were ticky-tack penalties, but are those common for Gronkowski this year? Or is he being unfairly targeted? After Sunday night, there’s really no question about it. Before Sunday night, though, there were some penalties with merit.
On Nov. 15, the Patriots were facing 3rd-and-8 with 8:08 in the second quarter against the New York Giants. Defensive back Trevin Wade pressed Gronkowski within five yards of the line of scrimmage, and Gronkowski pressed him right back by pushing the defender backward. The Patriots failed to convert after the penalty, and were forced to punt.
Using the hands to disengage is one thing, pushing off is another. The first is not a penalty, the second is. Which do you see when you watch this play? The answer: probably the same thing you see when you watch this next play.
On 1st-and-goal with 0:34 left in the second quarter of an October game against the Miami Dolphins, Gronkowski drew an offensive pass interference flag after pushing off on Dolphins safety Reshad Jones. Once again, this is a pretty clear call. Jones was already in that space on the field, and Gronkowski not only ran into that space, but forcibly moved Jones out of that space. The penalty had no impact on where the ball was thrown, but it was still a flag-worthy infraction. The Patriots scored on the next play, so it had no bearing on the outcome.
That’s about it. The flags that came earlier in the season were far more questionable in their merit.
With 4:29 left in the first quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 3, Gronkowski was called for OPI on Davon House. The tight end barely touched the Jaguars defensive back at the top of his route, which was away from the pass. The contact had no impact on the outcome of the play, and was borderline at best.
So was this next one.
With 9:51 left in the third quarter against the Jaguars, Brady hit running back James White underneath for a five-yard gain. The play came back on OPI against Gronkowski, but there’s clearly contact by both players, and that contact takes place all the way down the field. One could argue that House was impeding Gronkowski just as much, if not more than Gronkowski was impeding House.
So far this season, four of Gronkowski’s six flagged OPIs have been questionable or outright bad calls. I’m not sure where that falls in the rankings of bad calls this year, but it has to be pretty high on the list.
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