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Gronkowski Cleared To Play, But Patriots Must Still Change Offensive Philosophy To Preserve Him

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
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Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

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BOSTON (CBS) — When Bill Belichick stepped to the podium Wednesday morning, he must have been feeling rather jovial, as he volunteered the information that Rob Gronkowski has been cleared to play. The news was met with much glee among Patriots fans, and all of New England was merry.

Yet that excitement was no doubt tempered, and for a number of reasons. With Gronkowski, who has missed 15 games over the past two years and played injured in the Super Bowl in the 2011 postseason, health has increasingly been the No. 1 issue for a player who’s clearly got Hall of Fame-type talent. The fact that Gronkowski has missed so much time in recent years begs the question of how exactly the Patriots should go about handling No. 87 this summer and into the season.

As a quick refresher, Gronkowski tore his ACL and MCL on Dec. 8. It was just the seventh game of the season for Gronkowksi, who had missed the first six weeks due to offseason surgeries on his forearm and back. Gronkowski missed those first six weeks despite being eligible to play, as the Patriots elected to take him off the PUP list at the end of training camp. The team believed Gronkowski to be healthy enough to play in at least some of those first six games, but the Gronkowski family reportedly disagreed, as there was apparently some leftover distrust from the way the Patriots’ medical staff handled the broken forearm from the previous season.

And that, above all else, is why Wednesday’s move should be met with at least a hint of suspicion. Considering that the Patriots’ head coach reveals player injury information about as often as the rest of us go in for voluntary root canals, it’s not out of line to wonder if Belichick had an ulterior motive in declaring Wednesday that Gronkowski has been cleared to play. If Belichick foresees another month or two of playing chicken with the Gronkowski family, perhaps this declaration was the first indication that the coach does not plan to blink.

Telling the world that the tight end has been cleared by doctors to play may be Belichick’s way of challenging Gronkowski, as if to say, “You are ready, Rob. Take the field.”

On the flip side, there is the possibility that Belichick simply felt uncharacteristically charitable when he spoke of a player’s health. If that is the case, and if Gronkowski truly is ready to go, the question then becomes what the best course of action should be.

As recent years have shown, being a 6-foot-6, 265-pound monster hasn’t helped Gronkowski avoid getting hurt. It’s not that he is injury-prone as a player … it’s just that his style of play is such that he opens himself up to a greater opportunity to get injured. He very rarely goes down when just one defender is in on the tackle, and where most other ball carriers absorb one or two hits, Gronkowski tends to absorb five or six. That, logically, creates a greater opportunity for him to suffer an injury, and it’s the exact scenario that led to his torn knee last December.

So the question is … can the Patriots pull in the reins on Gronkowski? And would they really want to?

What makes Gronkowski such a dangerous offensive weapon is that tenacity, the relentlessness and the refusal to ever hit the turf without gaining every last inch on every single play. To ask Gronkowski to avoid contact rather than seek it out, or to tell him to play more like Deion Branch or Brandon Lloyd by hitting the deck or stepping out of bounds after making a catch would be to take the Gronk out of Gronk. And what would be the benefit in having a shell of Gronkowski on the field?

A better solution may be to simply lean on Gronkowski less in the offensive scheme. Last year, with a slew of rookie wide receivers, with Danny Amendola battling injury issues of his own and with Aaron Hernandez locked in a prison cell, Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels really relied on Gronkowski to carry the offense in those seven games when he suited up. And Gronkowski lived up the billing, as he caught 39 passes for 592 yards and four touchdowns. With Gronkowski, the Patriots’ offense was as powerful as ever. Without him, the offense was mediocre.

So it makes sense why the Patriots would rely on him so heavily, but that strategy also exposed Gronkowski to more hits, and that ultimately ended his season long before the Patriots needed him most.

Rob Gronkowski takes a hit from three New York Jets defenders in October 2013.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Rob Gronkowski takes a hit from three New York Jets defenders in October 2013. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

De-emphasizing Gronkowski’s role in the offense, particularly in the first half of the season, would limit the number of punishing hits that he would have to take. The secondary benefit of such a philosophy change would be that the offense will be better-suited to survive without Gronkowski in the event he does need to miss any more time. If the Patriots hope to even come close to reaching the potency of Denver’s offense, they’re going to need more than just Gronkowski to have standout seasons, and the team could do worse than to have a 6-foot-6 decoy to help clear space for his teammates. For this plan to be successful, it will require Aaron Dobson, Brandon LaFell, Shane Vereen and Amendola to play active, successful roles in the passing game. But for the team to really be successful, that would have to happen anyway.

Of course, all of this hinges on whether or not Gronkowski is actually healthy and ready to play. Just because Bill has said so does not make it so. That reality was clear last year with Belichick’s decision to keep the player off the PUP list, only to have him waste a roster spot for six weeks. If a similar scenario plays out in the coming weeks and months, then all of this talk of usage and offensive philosophy becomes irrelevant.

Yet, if Gronk is ready to go, and if indeed we see him on the field in Miami for Week 1, then it’s clear that the Patriots must resist the urge to constantly feed Gronkowski with passes over the middle of the field. There are much more important balls to be caught in January, and for the first time in a long time, the Patriots would like to see Gronkowski making them.

Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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