The Patriots offense can’t possibly be the same without Rob Gronkowski.
It can no longer revolve around having the all-world tight end and Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman taking turns making plays, with Tom Brady throwing daggers into opponents at just the right time. It’s no longer in the realm because there are no Gronk clones on the planet.
That’s the reality.
So what will a Gronk-less offense be like? What will Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have in mind for a unit that currently lacks weapons?
They could completely ground and pound, featuring running back Sony Michel and Dante Scarnecchia’s offensive line, with a strong defense on the opposite side.
Even in a pass-happy league, it’s not outlandish to think that might be the way they’re headed. That’s how the Patriots beat the Rams and won Super Bowl LIII.
They drafted University of Georgia star Michel in the first round last year. It would be just like Belichick to completely stun the masses once again and draft another back in the first round this year, to keep with the trend, and help preserve his soon-to-be-42-year-old quarterback.
That’s one school of thought. And it’s certainly a possibility given the success last season, but it’s hard to totally buy in to an even heavier run-pass ratio from game to game. Why? Because Brady can still throw the football. He hasn’t fallen off the cliff.
It would be a waste of his final years, if all he’s doing is handing off the football. NFL Network analyst Brian Billick wasn’t opposed to the Patriots implementing more of their running attack, but not at the expense of Brady.
“You can’t go away from Tom Brady. No team is good enough in this league to just run the ball. It doesn’t exist in this league. It’s just a matter of how you’re going to augment it,” Billick said when reached last week. “Certainly, you can put more emphasis on the run. You’ve seen it in New Orleans to a degree, you’ve seen that with Drew Brees. Trying to have more balance, not having him be a 650-throw guy.
“I don’t know if you want Brady to be a 650-throw guy,” Billick went on. “He’s certainly up to it. You want to run the ball, but you have to have a passing presence if nothing else, to set up the big plays down the field.”
For the record, Brady had 570 pass attempts last year. Brees, who is 40, had 489. The Pats had 478 rushing attempts during the regular season. So the pendulum still swung toward passing. In the Super Bowl, it was close to an even split (35 pass, 32 rush) but mostly it was that way out of necessity.
Let’s remember, this is still a game-plan specific team. They’re chameleons. It’s doubtful that’s going to change whether they have Gronk in the huddle or not. They run when the opponent dictates that style of offense, while they go with a heavier passing offense if they’re up against a stout run defense.
“They’re able to do that, because they’re the masters of the small ball game,” said Billick. “Part of that was the balance between (Julian) Edelman and Gronk which made it work. They were able to generate just enough big plays. People had to come down to stop the run, then they’d pop you over the top.”
In the overall scheme, Gronkowski was good for everyone because he took up double teams, taking coverage away from other receivers. He and Edelman worked well together.
“Edelman was better because of Gronk. And Gronk was better because of Edelman,” said Billick. “So clearly, they’re going to have to create some kind of presence, or it’s going to be a long year.”
While it’s true that the Patriots are not exactly loaded with top-end pass-catching talent at receiver or tight end beyond Edelman, there’s still time to remedy the situation.
The talk is that they were in on every conceivable wide receiver, be it free agent or otherwise. They didn’t land any of the big fish, whether it was the top trade target Antonio Brown, or free agents Adam Humphries and Golden Tate. They fell short on all the marks. But it’s a safe bet they’ll trade for someone either before the draft, or during draft weekend. Some names to consider would be Sterling Shepard of the Giants, or Nelson Agholor of the Eagles. Or, they’ll roll the dice, and try again in the draft (South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel, Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin, West Virginia’s David Sills, Clemson’s Hunter Renfrow, UMass’ Andy Isabella).
“I’ll bet Tom has the same questions . . . ‘you are going to get me somebody, right?’’’ said Billick. “”They’ll come up with something. They always do.”
Impact of Schiano’s exit
News of Greg Schiano stepping down from the Patriots coaching staff came as a shock Thursday. And that’s under-selling his stunning exit. He was expected to take over as the defensive play caller for Brian Flores, who took the Dolphins head coaching job. Belichick raved about him on a talk show last week. But after a month, he’s taking time away from the game to “recalibrate” his priorities.
It might seem like a disaster, but I’m reminded of something safety Duron Harmon told me right after the Super Bowl when I asked him if Schiano could do as well as Flores.
“All I know is coach Belichick is still the head man in charge. And he’s going to make sure whenever we play, we’re going to be ready to go,” said Harmon. “It might be a different face leading, but at the end of the day, the guy at the top is the guy who’s been consistent here. And we’ve always won games since he’s been here. So I’m not worried about that.”
Bottom line: Belichick is the mastermind of the defense. It’s always been that way. He had a major hand in piecing together the plans that took out the Chargers, foiled the Chiefs for a time, and ruined the Rams.
He’s also now brought in former Patriot Jerod Mayo to be the linebackers coach. Terrific move. Mayo will be great with the younger players. He could wind up the play caller after some time back with the team. Not now.
Unless something else develops, Belichick will handle the defense.
They’ve lost other coaching personnel on the defensive staff. They’ll still need to add more under Belichick’s direction.
Belichick opens up
While Belichick was the master of the two-word answer with the media in Arizona, he was much more forth-coming in an interview with Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski that aired Thursday on the “Basketball and Beyond with Coach K” show on SiriusXM.
One sample came when Kryzewski asked the Hoodie how he’s been able to keep winning so fresh, and be as excited winning the sixth as he was the first.
It sounds like Belichick also got into the outside negativity and used that to push his team.
“As you know coach, every year is different, each team is different, the chemistry, and what you go through and experience as a team. It makes each year unique,” said Belichick. “And even though the results are similar to what they’ve been before in some other special years, this one was a little bit different. We started off 1-2, we were 3-5 on the road. There were things along the way that didn’t go the way we hoped they would go. There was some negativity and people counting us out, and talking about how bad we were at everything. Bad coaching, bad playing, bad everything. Then, at a point during the end of the season, we were able to play our best football at the most critical games at the most critical times in those games. Our execution was the very best that it was all season, in some cases, quite a bit. It was very special and fulfilling. For it to come together like that, in spite of some of the adversity . . . there was an internal belief in ourselves in the process of what we were doing. Fortunately we were able to see those results manifest themselves in those critical games at critical times.”
One month later, the offseason has taken a crazy turn for the defending Super Bowl champs. It’ll be another unique year for Belichick in 2019.