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October 29. 2012 9:55PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Gronk being Gronk is just fine with Pats

HAVING already taken his homeland by storm, the Rob Gronkowski phenomenon went international this weekend. Starting with his spike of a microphone during a Saturday rally in Trafalgar Square, then exploding again when he celebrated the first of his two touchdowns by imitating the march of a Buckingham Palace guard — or, as he described them, “the little Nutcracker dude guarding the house” — his global popularity seemed to reach new heights as the Patriots visited London to rout the Rams.

But as long as he is their tight end, there’s nowhere Gronkowski will be more popular than in New England. And that’s because of more than just his goofiness and big-kid likability.

More so it’s because of the incredible impact he has on the Patriot offense, for which he has now scored 38 touchdowns in 44 professional contests, and within which his difference-making isn’t exclusively explained by the frequency of his celebrations.

Gronkowski isn’t the leading receiver for the NFL’s top-ranked offense, whether that’s measured by catches, yardage or targets. But the evidence shows that over his two and a half seasons, the more he is involved in the passing game, the more prolific — and successful — the Patriots are as a team. Looking at numbers that include four playoff contests, consider:

•When Gronkowski catches a touchdown pass the Pats are 20-3 (.870), compared to 14-7 (.667) when he’s kept out of the end zone. In fact, when he doesn’t score it’s almost as if New England doesn’t replace those expected points, posting an average of 35.5 points when Gronkowski is involved in the scoring and 27.8 points when he’s not.

•When Gronkowski scores on more than one pass, the Pats are 11-1 and averaging 36.9 points per contest.

•The number of Gronkowski receptions doesn’t have a huge impact on the scoreboard or the standings — New England is 17-5 when he as at least five catches, and 17-5 when he has fewer — but the Patriots are better when Tom Brady is feeding him steadily. When Gronkowski is targeted with 10 passes or more, the Patriots are 7-0 and averaging 42.9 points per game over his career.

•Remove Gronkowski’s rookie season from the mix and New England is 6-0 and averaging 43.7 points when he is thrown to at least 10 times, while over that same span the Pats are winless, and averaging only 23.5 points, when he’s targeted three times or fewer.

•Of course, it does matter if Gronkowski is catching the balls thrown to him. And when he is, it opens things up for others — as one might expect. When at least 80 percent of passes to Gronkowski are completed, the Patriots are 19-1; when the number is less than that, the Patriots are 15-9.

•This season, Gronkowski leads New England by gaining an average of 13.5 yards per grab. And that’s a good sign for the Patriots because when Gronkowski accumulates at least 100 yards in a game, they average 39 points. On the contrary, when he’s limited to less than 50 yards, the average dips to 29.5 points. Further, since Gronkowski really became an offensive focal point at the start of 2011, the Patriots are just 3-2 when he picks up fewer than 50 yards, and average a touchdown more per game when he surpasses 80 receiving yards (35.4 points) than when he doesn’t (28.6 points).

Sunday in London, Gronkowski’s 146 gave him his eighth 100-yard receiving game, moving within one of Ben Coates’ franchise record for a tight end. His two touchdowns moved him within eight of Randy Moss’ NFL record of 43 receiving scores during a player’s first three seasons. And with three more he’ll become the first tight end ever to register three consecutive seasons with double-digit touchdown catches.

At all of 23 years old, he is already in the midst of an historic — dare we say Hall of Fame — career. And with the Pats on pace for another 500-point season, on pace to set the franchise record for most net yards, and on pace to set an NFL record for the most first downs, it’s clear that the personal marks are only part of the history Gronkowski is making.

______


HAVING spent weeks at 1-2 and 3-3, the first half of the season probably didn’t proceed as the Patriots had planned — yet they reach the midpoint bye exactly where they were a year ago, and all things considered pretty well-positioned in the AFC and its East division.

“We knew how important this game was to us — going into the bye week 5-3, winning two key games, get us going. We’re right where we want to be,” Vince Wilfork said after Sunday. “It feels good, finally, to put one game together as a team, doing a lot of things correct, just playing good football all the way around.

“Guys can see that, when we play together, don’t hurt ourselves, we can be a dangerous football team.”

And it’s a team with its goals still very much in front of them. The Texans are the only AFC team with more victories, the Ravens are beaten up, and it’s hard to envision the Dolphins posing a serious threat in the division (even after winning three straight). Plus, there’s room for the Patriots to improve — as they seem to do in November and December every year.

“Coach says the season doesn’t start until after Thanksgiving and it isn’t even Halloween yet,” Brady said. “There’s a lot of games to be played, teams making improvements. I hope we’re one of the teams that continues to get better and uses the games we played, learn from those, move on from the bad things, get back to the stuff that’s working.”

______


WITH their 262 points scored, the Patriots have more than twice as many points as five other teams, and have 39 more than the Jaguars (103) and Eagles (120) combined.

Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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