EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Gronk Management. The Patriots trainers and coaching staff should by now have a doctorate in it. And Sunday promises to be another game in which the irrepressible, often-uncoverable but frequently broken tight end is kept on a tight leash.
After getting his organs jumbled against the Seahawks, Rob Gronkowski missed last week’s game at San Francisco. He was limited in practice all week leading into this game with the Jets and the nature of the injury practically demands that Gronk not be led into danger down the seams.
Gronk will play today, according to a source. How much? It could be reminiscent of the way the Patriots approached things with Gronk the last time they saw the Jets in Week 16 of 2015.
That day, they threw to him six times completing four for 86 yards but didn’t go to him extensively until they were in danger of losing (they ultimately did) and stayed outside the numbers with the majority of his targets. In the finale against Miami, the Patriots threw to Gronk seven times, completing two for 18 yards.
Gronk is the poster child for the risk management juggling the Patriots have done since 2011. His smashed ankle turned him into a decoy in the 2011 Super Bowl loss to the Giants. In 2012, his bizarre forearm fracture on an extra point against the Colts then his subsequent return and re-break harpooned another postseason run and led to the formation of what I’ve called Gronk Inc., the coalition of concerned parties (his agents and family) who never want to see the kid pushed into harm’s way unnecessarily.
With good reason.
After a slow return to the lineup in 2013, his knee got destroyed and the Patriots were all but done once that happened, despite another AFC Championship appearance. In 2014, he came out of the gate a little tentative by his own admission before submitting a transcendent season. In 2015, after he got his knee whacked in Denver and the writhing that ensued showed just how much the threat of injury preys on his mind. He missed a game and wasn’t himself again until the same again until the playoffs. Then, he was targeted 23 times in two games, caught 15 balls and scored three touchdowns.
But all the other injuries that hijacked the Patriots season -- season-enders for Nate Solder, Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount among them -- made the hill too high to climb.
And that’s why -- even aside from Gronk -- this is probably a sweaty-palms day for the Patriots coaching staff. Not only is Gronk dinged but so too are Martellus Bennett, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Tom Brady.
Do they manage their usage with an eye on preserving them down the stretch? Or do they go all-out in a division game knowing that if they lose and Miami wins their lead in the AFC East is one game and they fall a little bit further behind the Raiders who actually have the inside track to the No. 1 seed (based on strength of victory).
The widely accepted opinion on 2015 is that the Patriots screwed around too much down the stretch trying to preserve players, establish a running game and generally coast into the playoffs with everyone in the best shape possible. The 2-4 close to the season put them on the road in Denver where the Broncos crowd played a major role in the two-point Patriots loss.
But had the Patriots pounded the ball to Gronk and gotten him hurt would they have been in Denver at all trying for a two-pointer to tie?
While Bill Belichick would give an aggressive stink face to any question regarding game and rep management with players, NFL Films “A Football Life: Bill Belichick” included an exchange prior to the season finale with the Texans in which Belichick talked about the need to protect Wes Welker from excessive punishment. Welker blew an ACL and the Patriots were meat the next week, losing 33-14 to the Ravens.
The Patriots have been ushered from the playoffs due to the inavailability of key players as often as they’ve been toppled because the team wasn’t good enough.
Most of those occasions have come in the past six seasons. How that informs the team’s approach today in a division game against a rival will be interesting to watch.