FOXBOROUGH — There’s no satisfaction found behind this keyboard from writing discouraging words at the conclusion of an encouraging day. It’s just that after the Patriots’ 59-24 victory over Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts Sunday — a show of force usually reserved for teams coached by Jeff Fisher — an unexpected addendum arrived that put a damper on the optimism, at least temporarily.
If you checked out last night before the news came down, I presume your breakfast suddenly lost all flavor when you read the news. Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots’ ferocious, record-setting, official-terrifying, irresistibly likable third-year tight end, suffered a broken forearm while blocking on the Patriots’ final extra-point attempt of their 59-24 victory over the Colts. He will have surgery Monday and is expected to be out 4-6 weeks. That the essential Gronkowski was injured turning a 34-point lead into a 35-point lead with all of 3 minutes and 55 seconds remaining should provide plenty of ammo to those who wonder why the starters play so late into a blowout.
The time of the injury is irrelevant compared to the crucial question — exactly how much time will he miss? The Patriots have been relatively fortunate with injuries this season. It may not feel that way given their extensive weekly injury reports, but it’s true. Logan Mankins has been banged up, and Aaron Hernandez has played just four games, and there are scattered other injury-related absences every weekend. But it’s selfish to gripe when the Texans have lost Brian Cushing, and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s arm is in a sling, and the Jets are stranded without Darrelle Revis, and the Ravens must play on without LaDarius Webb and Ray Lewis. Perhaps the greatest frustration of watching the NFL is how quickly one injury can alter a team’s fortunes, but it happens. It happened, to some still immeasurable degree, to the Patriots Sunday.
If Gronkowski is out for a month, well, the Patriots will survive just fine, because that’s what they do.They have an incredible ability, one both admirable and impersonal, to plug in the next player, rally around him, and move on when a teammate falls. Such an approach made Matt Cassel a very rich man. Hernandez is expected back for Thursday’s matchup with the Jets, and that tight end depth they’ve carried all season now looks like accidental foresight. Visanthe Shiancoe, step right up. It’s your opportunity to seize.
But playing at the same level without Gronkowski is going to be so tough, and wouldn’t it be nice to see their entire offensive arsenal intact at least once this season? Those hopes of running the table into the postseason probably are no longer realistic with road games at the Jets and Dolphins and home heavyweight bouts against the Texans and Niners due up over the next four weeks. The possibility of a bye seems less. Six weeks? That takes him through the rest of the regular season.
It’s telling, both regarding his toughness and my willful obliviousness, that the first question that came to mind when I heard a few minutes after the leaving the Patriots locker room for the press box was: “Can he play with it?” Hey, if anyone can play tight end with an arm encased in plaster, it’s Gronk, right? He’d still be able to spike, too. He’s gonna be OK! I believe that’s what’s known as denial.
We learned last year that while Gronkowski may be Superman on the field, leaping for footballs and stampeding defensive backs in a single bound, he’s not actually made of steel. The high-ankle sprain he suffered during the AFC Championship game altered the eventual outcome of the Super Bowl; I will always believe there’s no way they lose that game if he’s even a reasonable facsimile of the force who had 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. And after that injury, he actually returned to the game — probably not the best move in retrospect — and was walking around barefoot in the locker room afterward, albeit with an ankle the size of a regulation softball. Sunday, tellingly, there was no sign of him.
For all of the encouraging performances and outcomes Sunday — the Patriots teaching the upstart Colts about the difference between contending at 6-3 and pretending at 6-3, Aqib Talib’s 59-yard interception return that required about 120 yards of running when his east-west moves were calculated, Julian Edelman’s electrifying 222 all-purpose yards — Gronkowski’s 7-catch, 137-yard, 2-touchdown effort might have been the best.
I won’t go so far as to say it was one of the best games of his career, because there are a lot of candidates 42 regular-season games into this thing, but I’ll hear your argument if you want to make the case. I’ll say this: He looked as healthy as he has all season, as healthy as he has since late in the third quarter against the Ravens last January.
And Gronkowski at the height of his powers enhances everything else within the Patriots offense, as Brady explained during his postgame press conference. (Wonder if he was aware of the injury at that point.) On the drive that culminated with his first TD reception, Gronkowski had three catches — one beating a cornerback, one beating a safety, and one beating a tight end.
“They try,” Brady responded when asked why defenses don’t put more of an emphasis of stopping Gronkowski at all costs. “It’s definitely something they try. It’s just hard because, OK, do you want to blitz, do you not want to blitz? When you’re a tight end, you’re really on the inside part of the field. You can run basically wherever you want. It’s not like you’re an outside receiver, where your route has to complement other people’s routes. As a tight end, you go right, left, deep, short, you really do whatever you want. And the more you put on him, the less are on Wes, the less guys are rushing, the less on Brandon, Julian. That’s why it’s team football.”
It’s team football, but it was a hell of an individual performance Sunday. Gronkowski literally caught everything thrown his way, hauling in his seven passes on seven targets, and he achieved a couple of milestones that reminded us that Canton is inevitable barring injury more serious than a busted forearm.
He became the third tight end in NFL history — joining Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez, which is as exclusive as contemporary company at the position gets — to have 10 or more touchdowns in three straight seasons. But Gronk also stands higher than they do, for he is the only one to do it in his first three seasons.
The two touchdowns — a 4-yarder in the first quarter and 24-yarder in the third to make it 38-17 — gave him 37 for his career. That’s one shy of John Mackey’s career total, two fewer than Mark Bavaro (and nine more than Bavaro had as a Giant), and just seven fewer than Kellen Winslow (not his brief teammate this season, his dad).
Sunday’s two scores allowed Gronkowski to tie and surpass be-goggled Chargers flash John Jefferson for the third-most receiving touchdowns by a player in his first three seasons. Randy Moss — the record-holder at 43 and Gronk’s former teammate for a brief time — might have been in sight if not for the injury.
Now, for the foreseeable future, no records are in danger; Gronkowski will be out of sight. It’s team football, as the quarterback reminds us, and others will step up — Wes Welker, of course, and maybe Lloyd, and Stevan Ridley in the running game. But it won’t be as easy or much fun without Gronk, that supremely talented individual, the touchdown machine whose one flaw apparently is that he’s not unbreakable.