A Monday morning MRI has confirmed Patriots fans' worst nightmare; according to multiple reports, New England's star tight end Rob Gronkowski has suffered both a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and medial collateral ligament, ending his season.
Gronkowski was carted off of Gillette Stadium Sunday and would not get the opportunity to contribute to yet another remarkable and implausible fourth-quarter comeback orchestrated by Tom Brady and the offense. Instead, he was in the Patriots' locker room receiving attention from the medical staff and more than likely, learning about the severity of the injury to his right knee.
The potentially season-altering injury came toward the start of the third quarter, as Gronkowski hauled in a pass from Tom Brady and began to make a move up the field. As he went to plant his right foot in the ground, Browns safety T.J. Ward came flying in and made direct contact to Gronkowski's knee, sending him barreling violently over another Brown defender before hitting the turf. Slow-motion replays of the hit showed Gronkowski's knee bending awkwardly, and field-level microphones picked up an obviously dismayed Gronk shouting in pain. The sold-out crowd of just under 69,000 fell silent almost instantly, knowing the kind of difference-maker that Gronkowski is for this team and also how many serious injuries he has sustained in his short career.
Despite the near-impossible finish that lifted New England to a 27-26 victory over Cleveland, which included a recovered onside kick and two Tom Brady touchdown passes in a span of a mere 61 seconds, Gronkowski's injury loomed like a bad omen over a dark and dreary Gillette crowd. The only thing more unlikely than the final score was the fact that the outcome of the game would somehow prove to be less significant than the injury status of a player not named Tom Brady. Gronk is just that important to this team's success.
The oft-beleaguered tight end missed the first six games of the season while rehabbing from offseason back and forearm surgeries. Entering Sunday's game, Gronkowski silenced most questions about his health and eventual playoff-availability with incredible production in an albeit limited sample size. Since his return to the lineup, he surpassed Saints tight end Jimmy Graham as the most explosive tight end in the league, amassing 39 receptions for 592 yards and 4 touchdowns. Now, Gronkowski will undergo yet another surgery to repair his knee, marking his sixth major operation since just November of last year. While his lack of availability for the remainder of the year will be difficult enough to overcome, the Patriots also need to have a contingency plan for their long-term investment. Gronkowski is just 24 years old, and Sunday's game marks the third consecutive year in which he's suffered a major injury. Having committed a multi-year, $53 million dollar extension to Gronkowski in June of 2012, Bill Belichick and the Patriots front-office must face the possibility that the game-changing tight end may never be the same.
Patriots' Ranks — This Season – - courtesy of ESPN Stats and Information
|Weeks 1-6||Weeks 7-13|
|Red zone eff||30th||5th|
|1st downs PG||16th||1st|
|>>Rob Gronkowski returned Week 7|
While he's on the field, Gronkowski's talent and productivity are unquestioned. His biggest impact comes in the Red-Zone, where New England shot from third-worst in the league in 2013, to a top-five team in terms of efficiency. With Wes Welker in Denver, Gronk is clearly Brady's favorite and most reliable pass catcher; since his return in week 7, Brady's total QBR has gone from a pedestrian 55.0- to 71.1. Add in the fact that Gronkowski offers lineman-level blocking on running plays, and his importance simply can't be understated.
One of the major storylines for this Patriots team all season has been their resiliency in the face of season ending injuries to key players. Gronkowski now joins Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Sebastian Vollmer as key contributors now on injured reserve. With that list of company, its telling that Gronkowski's absence will likely have the harshest residual effects.
"It just shifts; you just have to find a different formula," Brady said on his weekly guest appearance on the Dennis and Callahan show Monday. "We're going to have to make do, whatever the combinations are. If Gronk's not out there, we've got to try to figure those out."
While Brady and head coach Bill Belichick will pick up some of the slack, it's going to take a total team effort to make up for Gronkowski's impact. The Patriots now sit at 10-3, and with divisional games versus the Dolphins and Bills left on the schedule, they have an opportunity to vie for a number two seeding and a first-round bye. With the playoffs looming, having their most diverse offensive weapon on the sideline is a lesson the would've liked to avoid repeating; Brady and the Patriots overcame the loss of Gronk on Sunday, but whether they'll be able to re-capture the magic against the NFL's best is anyone's guess.
Yet again, it appears as though the ever-elusive fourth Lombardi Trophy may be just out of reach.
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