Rob Gronkowski's injury and the effect it will have on the New England Patriots offense cannot be minimized.
He is without a doubt the key piece of what makes their offense so diverse and difficult to defend, and without Gronk the Patriots will be a different offense.
But let's point out that all is not lost for the Patriots, and learning to fight without their best punch for a period of time might ultimately be a long-term blessing in disguise.
Getting All of Gronk Healthy
First, let's remember Gronkowski has not been healthy the entire year. The ankle that he injured in last year's AFC Championship and had surgery on immediately after the Super Bowl never got back to 100 percent before training camp, and Gronk has lacked some of the explosion both in cutting and blocking.
He's also been on the injury report since late September with a hip injury and has been questionable for every game since Week 4's contest against the Buffalo Bills. We have no idea how significant these problems have been for Gronk, but some time off from the trenches of the NFL can do wonders for your long-term viability in the playoffs.
Tight End Depth to Overcome
Last year the Patriots went into most of their games with just two tight ends active, and their signing of every tight end out there this offseason made for a lot of tired punchlines.
But now it's clear why the Patriots added Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanawanui, and Visanthe Shiancoe.
The Patriots want to run their offense through their tight end position, and they knew they needed insurance to not miss a beat if Gronkowski and/or Hernandez got dinged.
None of those players can replace Gronkowski by themselves, but by committee it should not be a total disaster as it would've been last year. All are diverse and able to contribute in a number of ways.
The place in which might be hardest to replace Gronk is the red zone; however, Aaron Hernandez' expected return against the New York Jets should give them a boost in that area. Still, replacing eight red-zone touchdowns is never easy.
From ESPN Boston:
Brady is completing 67 percent of his throws to Gronkowski in the end zone the last two seasons and just 29 percent to all other Patriots.
Finding New Ways of Attack
Let's not kid ourselves, the Patriots still have plenty of weapons to contend with.
It starts with Fells, Shiancoe , Hoomanawanui and Hernandez since they'll stand to pick up the most snaps from Gronkowski's absence, but it's Julian Edelman, Greg Salas and even Shane Vereen that might now be incorporated a little more into the offensive game plan.
Developing other threats could prove useful, not just later this year, but next year when the Pats might have to replace Wes Welker.
Julian Edelman had a breakout game last week, now it's time to see if he can keep it up and be a significant piece of this offense going forward.
No Margin for Error in Chase for a Bye
The Patriots are about to embark on two road divisional games assuredly without Gronk, and if they win both they'll basically have locked up the AFC East and a playoff berth by the morning of December 3.
The battle for a coveted first-round bye is as tight as they come, though. As we projected on Monday, the difference between one more loss and two more losses could be the difference between the No. 1 or No. 4 seed.
There's no doubt that Gronkowski's absence will make things tougher on the Patriots as they try to gain ground on the Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens, while also holding off the Denver Broncos. However, the Patriots made this playoff bed with Gronk in the lineup. Their losses to the Arizona Cardinals, Ravens and Seattle Seahawks are likely to be the ones that end up haunting them the most.
Full Gronk in January Is All That Matters
It will be interesting to see how the Patriots offense evolves against some very good football teams without their best punch.
Playing a physical defense like the San Francisco 49ers without a blocking, pass-catching beast is less than desirable. And it's entirely possible the game against the Tennesse Titans could be for a bye. You want Gronk in those games, but ultimately it's the big one in February that really matters.
If the Pats can get Gronk back with a couple weeks to go in the regular season—in order to get a game or two in to knock off the rust and develop some new wrinkles for opposing defensive coordinators to think about—they should be primed to make a hard Super Bowl run.
Mike Dussault is a New England Patriots Featured Columnist and also edits PatsPropaganda.com. He co-hosts the PatsPropaganda & Frenz podcast with AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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