By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It’s no groundbreaking take to think that the Patriots may have been playing Rob Gronkowski conservatively over the first four weeks of the regular season. But that’s what I truly believe has been going on.
Call it pure speculation, like the Patriots did themselves when asked about the impact of Tom Brady’s business-as-usual return to the locker room. It really is. But there’s a really simple way to look at it, which I will explain here.
In my opinion, the Patriots took a calculated risk by conserving Gronkowski in his comeback to the playing field from a hamstring injury (and perhaps other ailments). They believed that they did not necessarily need Gronk running all over the place and catching passes in the middle of the field to start out 3-1 or even 4-0. In the case of the former, they turned out to be right.
The Patriots decided that the benefits of having a fresh, healthy Gronkowski later in the season far outweighed the risks of having him run deep seam routes or catching long passes from Jacoby Brissett, or even Jimmy Garoppolo. One of Brady’s most underrated assets is his ability to throw the football into spots where receivers wouldn’t be hung out to dry against waiting defenders ready to unload a massive hit.
This is especially the case with Gronk, who often can’t be tackled unless he’s chopped down at the knees or ankles. Garoppolo, and especially Brissett, did not necessarily have the kind of experience where they could put the ball in good spots for Gronk to not only make catches but avoid that kind of punishing contact.
Bill Belichick is well aware of the kind of asset he has in Gronkowski, as evidenced by the fact that he hasn’t even played in a single preseason game since 2012. He decided that it was not worth potentially putting Gronk in harm’s way with a rookie quarterback under center, despite him apparently being healthy. Imagine the firestorm that would erupt if Gronk went down with a serious injury because Brissett threw him a pass that got him blown out. You know that’s a storyline that Belichick would NOT be excited to hear.
So, Gronk has spent much of his time on the field as a blocker since returning in Week 3 against the Houston Texans. According to Pro Football Focus, Gronk has played 53 snaps in two games so far this season and 36 of them have been as either a run blocker or pass blocker. Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald has reviewed the game film every week so far and told Toucher & Rich that he hasn’t noticed any significant physical limitations for the tight end. Gronk himself said in his Wednesday presser, “I’ve been progressing every single week, every single day, and hopefully this week now it’s go time.”
With Brady back, it has to finally be go time.
Gronk has proved for years that he does not need preseason action to be an unstoppable force at the start of the regular season. Week 5 against the Browns is essentially the start of the season for Gronk. With Brady throwing the ball, there’s little to no chance Gronk will spend most of the game blocking. If you don’t see the Gronk you’re hoping to see with Brady under center, then it may be time to be concerned. But until that happens, it’s not exactly a risky bet to guess Gronk’s targets in the passing game will significantly increase against Cleveland.
With backups under center, Belichick kept No. 87 in the holster. With Brady finally back, the Patriots offense is about to be unleashed, and so is Gronk.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.