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The Patriots Can’t Replace Rob Gronkowski

Gronk is expected to miss the rest of this season after having back surgery. New England may be able to stay afloat in the short term — but its long-term concerns are much more troubling.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

If it were possible to feel sorry for a Patriots fan, today would be the day to do so. Early on Thursday afternoon, The Buffalo News reported that New England tight end/American hero Rob Gronkowski is scheduled to have surgery on a ruptured disk in his back. Later on Thursday, the team announced that he is expected to miss the rest of the 2016 season.

The news is crushing for both the Pats and fantasy teams everywhere. By now, it’s easy to take what Gronk has accomplished for granted. Only seven players in NFL history have at least five seasons of double-digit touchdown catches: Randy Moss, Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens, Cris Carter, Larry Fitzgerald, and Gronk. This is a reminder that Gronkowski has been in the league for only seven years. It’s impossible to overstate the impact he has for New England’s offense, and the difference in Tom Brady’s numbers with and without Gronk is glaring. Since 2010, the quarterback’s completion percentage is 8 percentage points higher when Gronk is in the game (65.5 to 57.5). When Gronk’s out, Brady can be downright mortal.

The Patriots’ offensive approach in recent years has been built on attacking opponents in the short to intermediate areas of the field with a collection of mismatch-creating underneath receivers. With Gronk on the shelf, that style will likely become more pronounced. Even though he’s a tight end, Gronkowski is unquestionably New England’s most dangerous downfield threat. Since returning from his suspension in Week 5, Brady has completed 29 passes of at least 20 yards. A dozen of them have gone to Gronk, who’s hauled in a 20-plus-yard catch on a ridiculous 15.1 percent of his passing snaps.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

With Gronkowski hurt, the Pats will be forced to rely on a more diverse array of pass-catching options, and fortuitously, another piece of that group just got healthy. Dion Lewis has recovered from his left knee injury enough to give New England a measure of flexibility: In Gronk’s absence, Brady can throw to Lewis, fellow running back James White, tight end Martellus Bennett, and his stable of receivers. Bennett isn’t the vertical weapon that Gronk is, but he’s still among the best pass-catching tight ends in football. Any offense will be hampered without a true big-play threat, but a Patriots unit that features a combination of space-exploiting talent and Brady is well-equipped to stay afloat without one.

The problem with New England’s current construction is that having a merely potent offense might not be enough. Its pass defense is 28th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, and this team lacks the type of roster balance that has made it so dangerous in seasons past. For the Pats to steamroll through the AFC playoffs, Brady’s group has to be a scoreboard-exploding force. That becomes a much more difficult task without Gronk, and that means while he recovers the ceiling for this offense is significantly lower.

That’s the short-term concern. The long-term worry may be even more troubling. Gronkowski’s injury history (accelerated by the total disregard that he has for both his body and the ones of the defenders he constantly runs over) has already robbed him of 19 starts in his seven-year career, and this back injury is hardly an isolated incident. Gronk fell to the second round in the 2010 draft because some teams were uneasy about a back injury that caused him to miss the entire 2009 campaign at Arizona. This latest operation will be his third back surgery in seven years. That’s terrifying.

If there’s any consolation for New England, it’s that the franchise’s worst-case scenario — Gronkowski returning next season as a shell of himself — would have minor financial ramifications. After this year, he has just $6 million in guarantees left on the team-friendly, six-year, $54 million contract he signed in 2012 (a deal kept modest in part because of his injury history). But that doesn’t provide much solace. Outside of Julian Edelman, the Pats have failed to produce in-house receiving talent for about a decade, and the roster is devoid of promising young wideouts. Brady will be 40 at the start of next season. He has only so many games left. Spending any of those without Gronkowski has to be considered a missed opportunity.

For the sake of both the Patriots and the game, I hope that all of this remains speculation. Gronkowski already deserves mention as the best tight end to ever play the game, and the notion that his football career could be in question before he turns 28 is too damn sad to even think about. There’s only one silver lining: If Gronk had to go out for some time, at least it happened while he was sitting on 69 career touchdowns.

After publication, this piece was updated with news that Gronkowski is expected to miss the remainder of the 2016 season.