Though he didn’t completely rule out a comeback, Rob Gronkowski is not — to paraphrase Rick Pitino — walking through the Patriots’ door anytime soon.
The result is Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will have to find a way to generate offense without the four-time All-Pro right end. In a preseason roundtable, the “Football Night in America” crew on NBC Sports tackled the question of New England’s offense.
“Just talking to coach [Bill] Belichick, he said offensively they’re going to have to find creative ways of doing things because they don’t have an outstanding receiving corps,” said former Patriot and current studio analyst Rodney Harrison. “I think they’re going to run the ball, play-action pass. Whenever Ben Watson gets back — he’s suspended for four games — he’ll be a big part of that offense. Other than that, I think it’s the same thing: short, intermediate passes and running the football.”
Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk also maintained the chance that Gronkowski actually does return in the 2019 season.
“I’m not ready to say it’s post-Gronk,” said Florio. “I think there’s a good chance he comes back this year. Someone had pegged it at 40 percent earlier this summer that he’ll return, and if Tom Brady ever picks up the phone and makes that personal plea to Rob Gronkowski, that’d be a huge factor.”
As former Colts coach Tony Dungy put it, there’s a mixed blessing for Patriots’ opponents now that Gronkowski is (for the moment) retired.
“The good news for the rest of the league [is] they don’t have to deal with Gronk,” said Dungy. “The bad news is that means the ball’s in Tom Brady’s hands. Tom is going to have to be the focal point, and he can still do it. He knows where to go with the ball.”
Dungy gave a personal example from his time as a Patriots rival coach in Indianapolis.
“I’ve seen him, we played against them in [the] 2006 playoffs, I couldn’t even name a receiver on that team, and they put up 34 points per-game,” Dungy said.
While Dungy is exaggerating, his inability to remember Patriots receivers from 2006, including now-retired wideout Reche Caldwell, spurred a humorous moment.
“Reche Caldwell’s going to be offended by that,” Florio joked.
“Was he on the team?” Dungy responded.
“I didn’t even know he was on the team, and he was my teammate,” Harrison added in apparent jest.
On a more serious note, Dungy explained how he sees the Patriots’ offensive philosophy.
“You know what the Patriots are great at?” Dungy asked. “They look at every single game as a different entity. So whatever your team is weak in, that’s what they’re going to attack that particular game. That’s why they’re tough to defend.”