Editor’s note: In this 10 part series, we will be focusing in-depth at each level on the field from a potential and performance standpoint including who’s likely to be back, who’s likely to be elsewhere and where improvement is needed…today is part 3 of the series, looking at the Tight Ends…
Well, that didn’t work.
When New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick envisioned what his offense was going to look like in 2012, he probably daydreamed of his fine new set of tight ends running rampant all over hapless linebackers and safeties, opening up holes for a power running game and a fleet-of-foot, complimentary, chain-moving horizontal passing game that would drive defensive coordinators out of their minds.
What he got was injury after injury, the first of which derailed his grand scheme before it ever really got started – and, for the second consecutive post-season, an injury to his star tight end Rob Gronkowski that left him useless to the offense – and again made the Patriots the grand illusion.
“So if you think your life is complete confusion Because you never win the game Just remember that it’s a Grand illusion And deep inside we’re all the same. We’re all the same…”
…and then Tommy Shaw breaks off into a proper guitar solo, one of the preeminent solos in all of classic rock. Styx broke the rules – they were a cult band whose local following catapulted them to brief greatness, but in the end they broke the golden rule by giving in to “Artistic differences”, and when that happens, everything else breaks down.
But Belichick doesn’t want to be the same as everyone else, as the song implies. He wants to dominate.
Belichick subscribes to the blitzkrieg standard of stomping everything in his path, methodically, without passion nor prejudice – not that he wants the other team to relent, quite the contrary in fact. He wants to take a teams best shot, then trample them – sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly depending on his mood…
The golden rule of offensive football is to force the defense into defending the entire field, to spread them thin and run right into their teeth. In theory, the Patriots can do that, but their entire philosophy is dependent upon the tight end combination of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez on the field at the same time – and that happened precious little in 2012…So the offense broke down at the philosophical level.
We know this because when the Patriots started 2012 season, they kept exactly three wide receivers on the roster, and none of them a legitimate #1 – Wes Welker is a slot receiver, the best in the NFL, but a slot receiver nonetheless. Brandon Lloyd is a possession receiver, a legit #2 with incredible hands and body control and Julien Edelman is still being groomed as a slot man….
…And at the same time keeping four tight ends and four running backs. Who does that?
Obviously, Belichick did have some sort of high speed/low drag plan for the offense where they would run plays at a record pace, but keeping the play calling conservative to the point where they could dictate the pace of the game to whatever they needed it to be. With the athleticism and morbid efficiency, they moved the chains.
That’s what they do and that’s what they will continue to do. The absence of Gronkowski was much more glaring in the red zone, but it affected the overall offensive production on just about any play that they could run…
…and when push came to shove not having Gronkowski enabled the Baltimore Ravens to focus on containing the Patriots – and New England melted when the illusion was shattered.
With everyone healthy, this offense can not be stopped. A dropped ball here or a penalty there would make for a few stalled drives, and turnovers will always be part of the game – that being said, is this offense ready to become the juggernaut that everyone was expecting in 2012? That all depends on the health of this unit and on Belichick and McDaniels balancing the playbook.
Not just a healthy mix between pass and run, but a mix between the passing game, the power passing game and the running game.
There are no false pretenses regarding the power passing game – it is straight forward with the Tight Ends gaining separation from the defender and steamrolling for as many yards as they can get after catching the ball…and they all bring a different skill set.
Gronkowski is the guy that carries people an extra yard or 10. Freakishly athletic, he is a tank nevertheless and if not contained and brought down before turning the corner with a head full of steam – well, the corners and safeties hate it. Once on the move vertically, it takes more than one man to bring Gronk down, sometime a group of players depending on how much leverage he can get.
The broken forearm is disturbing, however. While it is understood that when a plate is inserted to stabilize the bone at the breakpoint – it creates potential breakpoints where the plate ends, and it was on one of these edges that his bone snapped. He looked very uncomfortable blocking when he returned with that plate and his arm essentially in just a soft cast…
…and when he caught that ball on the sidelines against the Texans and came down on the arm, the bone snapped on the plate edge – there has to be some question as to why Gronkowski wasn’t outfitted with more protection, or even if he should have been on the field at all, given the opponent – but it doesn’t really matter now, and it will be interesting to see how his game changes to protect the arm going forward – but when healthy, he is one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the NFL.
He is a red zone terror due to his size and maneuverability, which is the same for redshirt Jake Ballard, a huge specimen that doesn’t quite have Gronkowski’s skill set – very few players do – but his value is in close to the goal line and as an in line blocker, giving quarterback Tom Brady a second legitimate gargoyle-like presence in the end zone.
The question with Ballard is, of course how his shredded knee holds up. The injury occurred in the Super Bowl barely a year ago, so when the Patriots claimed him off of waivers in training camp, they knew that he wasn’t going to be able to play due to the severity of the injury, so when the team reconvenes in July, he will have had a full year to learn the Patriots playbook and to get his body right.
That was a shrewed move by Belichick to pick up the young Ballard and give him a lot of time to become acclimated.
Aaron Hernandez is listed as a tight end, but you may as well just call him an H-back. With the speed and grace of a wide receiver, the elusiveness of a third down back and the bulk of a tight end, Hernandez has been labeled everything from the “X-factor” to a “Swiss Army Knife” and everything in between.
Losing him in the 2nd game last season dealt a brutal blow to the Patriots offense, and it took weeks of implementing before it ever really recovered.
Before he was hurt in the Arizona game he was part of a “13 Personnel” package which featured he, Gronkowski, Michael Hoomanawanui, Brandon Lloyd and a running back. Slot receiver Wes Welker, a participant on 98% of the Patriots offensive snaps in the previous years, was conspicuously on the bench while Julian Edelman saw a number of snaps in his stead.
Many speculated that Edelman was going to supplant Welker in the lineup in response to the team possibly moving Welker if the right offer came across the table – and perhaps Welker’s status was something similar to that scenario, but it was Hernandez that was to supplant Welker, not Edelman.
According to reports, Hernandez has rented a place in Manhattan Beach, California recently with the intent of working with Brady…and without reading too much into this, it’s worth noting that Slot receivers Welker and Edelman have gone to California in recent years to get in sync with Brady, getting the timing down from the slot
Rounding out the tight ends will be Michael Hoomanawanui, who earned his way to roster spot coming into 2013 with a real “Next man up” effort to take over many of Rob Gronkowski’s duties when he went down with the Broken Arm…”Hooman” is not particularly huge, but has some speed and versatility, and is an excellent blocker wither pulling from the tight end position of as a short yardage full back. In that respect, he could also be labeled as an H-back.
This group of tight ends is so incredibly versatile that no one could blame Bill Belichick for trying to build the offense around their capabilities, but an important lesson learned is when you have players so dynamic on your team, it means that they can not be easily replaced, if at all…and those weapons are only dynamic and dominating when they are on the field.
And with it being true that a team is only as strong as it’s weakest link, and having the experience of the past two years to fall back on, one would think that the Patriots can not go into next season without a solid backup plan…
…because you can’t make your weakest link that much weaker by having the staff write checks that the depth can’t cash. It puts them in a position to fail, which is exactly what happened the past two post-seasons.