Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: New England will adjust without Gronk
Blame the Colts.
See, by the time the all-world tight end incurred the injury that'll sideline him for a minimum of four to six weeks - after reportedly undergoing surgery on Monday morning - Belichick had reached the conclusion that the Patriots were comfortably ahead. When the Patriots took possession with 7:37 to play, enjoying a comfortable 28-point margin, Gronkowski wasn't part of the offense that the coach sent back onto the field.
Earlier in the day he'd become the first tight end in NFL history to catch at least 10 touchdowns in each of his first three seasons, and Sunday he was particularly unstoppable en route to seven catches and 137 yards, so if Belichick really believed the Pats needed more points, he surely would've had Gronkowski on the field.
Yet at the start of the aforementioned drive, Gronkowski was on the sideline and Shane Vereen (not Stevan Ridley) was in the backfield. Tom Brady threw on the first play, then again on a third-and-7, but the other five snaps during the series were all runs, and once they advanced the ball to the Indianapolis 4, the Patriots personnel package included Vereen, Visanthe Shiancoe and Michael Hoomanawanui. According to the depth chart, that's New England's third running back and its third and fourth tight ends.
Meanwhile, Indianapolis still had most of its starting defense on the field - yet the Colts still couldn't stop the Patriots' backups. Because of that, New England kicked its franchise-record-tying eighth extra point of the day. And as it did, it did so with little hesitation about sending Gronkowski onto the field to set the right edge of the alignment.
As Belichick said Monday, "It's one of his roles and jobs in the game. It's an important job, whoever does it."
Certainly clubs have contingencies in case of injury, and there will obviously be someone else there when the Patriots face the Jets on Thursday night, but kicking teams typically operate as complete units. They practice together. Then they stay together - no matter the score or the circumstances.
And while there is an assessment of risk vs. reward when deciding who to put in those situations, the risk of injury is so low on a point-after that it's commonplace for teams to use starters in those situations. The Patriots were merely playing as they practiced, and determined to do so for a full 60 minutes.
So blame the Colts for not being able to doing anything about that, because if they'd simply stopped the Patriots, Gronkowski would've left the field on Ridley's scoring scamper with 9:05 to play and never returned for the rest of the night.
Instead, he won't return for at least a month, and so now it's up to the Patriots to adjust - not only their game plan week to week, but their plans and expectations for the regular season as a whole.
With Gronkowski out, the Patriots might be best served by taking a realistic look at the conference landscape and perhaps readjust their objectives for these final six contests. At 7-3 they hold a three-game lead in the East, and a division title seems a near-certainty, but it's in the conference standings where losing to Arizona on a missed field goal, blowing a two-score lead at Baltimore, and giving away a nailbiter in Seattle really start to sting.
With six games remaining, the Pats are two games behind the Texans (9-1) and - having coughed up the tiebreaker - essentially two games behind the Ravens (8-2) in the fight for a first-round bye. New England plays Houston, so it has a chance to help itself at least a little bit, but both of those teams would really need to stumble in order to be overtaken.
So New England's best course of action might be making sure that they're at some semblance of full strength come playoff time rather than rushing players back in order to make a run at a top-two seed.
Without Gronkowski in the passing game, there will be temptation to get Aaron Hernandez back from an ankle injury he's already once re-aggravated as soon as possible. With Gronkowski absent as a blocker, the same will be true of Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly along the offensive line.
But the Patriots shouldn't divert from the plan on those players just because Gronkowski will be absent. If Hernandez was coming back anyway, then so be it. Get him in there. Same with either of the starting guards. But New England would seem to have a better chance of winning a Super Bowl by winning four games with its full complement fully healthy than trying to win three games with a team dealing with lingering ailments at a number of key spots.
And it's not as if the Patriot offense is suddenly going to be hapless with Shiancoe, Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells in place of Gronkowski and perhaps Hernandez. It still has Brady, and he still has Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, plus Julian Edelman and a soon-to-be-1,000-yard rusher in Ridley. They may not keep up a pace that currently has them on track to score the second-most points in NFL history, but with the proper adjustments they're certainly capable of keeping things from derailing until Gronkowski is fully recovered.
He's such a difference maker that by then New England's offense will probably look different, as likely will their planned path to New Orleans. Blame the Colts for that, Patriots fans.
But know that with good medicine and management over the next month, there's still hope that when it really matters your team will be just as unstoppable as it was on Sunday.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.