Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots had the greatest single season in tight end history in 2011. As such, expectations for 2012 were, justifiably, through the roof.
Yet Gronk hasn't quite been able to put together the kind of start Patriots fans had hoped for. The Patriots are just 2-2 and Gronkowski has not been as central to the offensive game plan so far.
After four regular season games, many are beginning to question why he hasn't been up to his usual greatness.
Let's take a look at the key differences between this year and last year.
The Patriots have not suffered a shortage of offensive talent over the last decade, but this team is particularly deep.
In the offseason, New England added deep-threat wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, in hopes of spreading the field a bit more than last year. The ground game has shown significant improvement as a result; Coach Belichick has shown willingness to lean on the run game, despite having Brady as his leader.
Add back into the mix wide receiver Wes Welker and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel, who is willing to spread the ball, and Gronkowski's role in the offense is sure to decline.
It seems counterintuitive that removing a teammate from the same position would decrease the output of the remaining athlete. In New England, that is not the case.
Part of what made Rob Gronkowski extraordinarily successful a season ago was the presence of equally-dynamic tight end Aaron Hernandez. The two were a frightening duo for opposing defenses to match up against—when one was covered the other would make you pay.
During Week 1 of the 2012 season, both tight ends recorded a touchdown and the Patriots cruised to an easy victory over Tennessee. Just one week later, Hernandez left with an injury and has yet to return.
Without his partner, Gronkowski's contribution has varied. He was slowed in Week 3, recording only two catches for 21 yards. However, Gronk turned in a nice effort against the team's most recent opponent, Buffalo.
With the absence of Aaron Hernandez, Gronk becomes the main big target for defenses to focus on over the middle, although even double coverage and extra attention sometimes still doesn't lock down Gronk's size.
His single-game potential is limited by the absence of his running mate.
Impossibility of a Repeat Performance
Rob Gronkowski had the greatest single season for a tight end in NFL history. The beast caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns.
No tight end ever had a season up to Gronk's 2011 standards and may never again.
The fact that even he can't exactly replicate his dominance pays tribute to last season's greatness. Cut the man some slack.
The breakout season demanded an adjustment from opposing defenses, which coordinators surely spent plenty of offseason hours scheming for. Now, with the Patriots surprisingly not in first place, eyes will understandably be turned in Gronk's direction to help lead New England back on track.
His five catches for 104 yards and a score in Week 4 are more of what his teammates and fans are looking for.
Heading into Week 5 against Brady-rival Peyton Manning, Gronkowski will look to put up gaudy numbers like a season ago.
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