Hannable: Why hasn’t Rob Gronkowski been super productive in Patriots offense this season?

Ryan Hannable
October 18, 2018 - 11:05 am

Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports

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FOXBORO — Through six games this season, Rob Gronkowski has 26 catches for 405 yards and a touchdown.

These are pretty solid numbers for a tight end, but not a player like Gronkowski in the Patriots offense with Tom Brady at quarterback and when the unit has put up a total of 119 points in the last three games.

The numbers just haven’t been what we’re used to seeing from the All-Pro tight end.

In 2017, he recorded five or more receptions in 8-of-14 games, while this year it’s been in just 2-of-6. Also, he only had four games last year with less than 60 yards receiving and this year he already has three.

Gronkowski is on pace to have 69 catches, 1,080 yards and three touchdowns, which has him just short of the numbers needed to gain his $3.3 million in incentives ($1.1 million for each). He needs 70 catches, 1,085 yards and nine touchdowns. Of course, this is based on him playing all 16 games, which even though he hasn’t missed any yet to this point, it seems like a long-shot given his past history.

The biggest thing is the lack of touchdown receptions.

Some of this can be attributed to his lack of targets in the red zone. The Patriots have had 30 pass attempts in the red-zone this season and Gronkowski has only been targeted once (three percent). As a reference, Gronkowski was targeted 21 times on 92 pass attempts last year (23 percent).

“It is what it is,” Gronkowski said of only having one red-zone target. “First off, I’ve got to get open. I’ve got to get out there and run better routes and then I’ll start seeing more targets. Whatever play is called, we’re scoring points, we’re scoring down there. Whatever I have to do to help out the team, even if the ball’s not going my way, I’ve just got to do it and just keep grinding. If I keep playing ball, keep doing what I need to do, keep playing better, I might start receiving the targets. That’s what it comes down to so just got to get better and get open.”

So, what are some of the reasons for Gronkowski’s stats being down?

The tight end has had more of a role in blocking than in year’s past. An example of this came Sunday against the Chiefs when he went up against Kansas City linebacker Dee Ford quite a bit, and did an outstanding job. According to Pro Football Focus, Gronkowski ran 31 routes and pass protected nine times, which were a season-high.

The tight end was asked about pass-blocking on Wednesday.

“I mean, every game changes,” he said. “You’ve got a game plan. You’re going in with the game plan but I mean, the game plan changes on the fly. The games change on the fly. Your assignments change on the fly and everything. It’s playing football and it is what it is. Whatever Coach [Bill Belichick] is calling, I’m cool with. I’ve never had a problem with it and if it’s the whole game, it’s the whole game. It is what it is and I don’t mind doing it at all.”

It’s also worth wondering if Gronkowski was asked to pass block more due to an potential injury. The tight end has been on the injury report for several weeks due to an ankle ailment. He also didn’t speak after Sunday’s game and the Patriots insinuated that was because he was getting treatment.

Gronkowski also hasn’t been able to get as much separation off the ball as we’re used to seeing. The Chiefs didn’t really do anything special against him and were able to take him out of the game, until his two big catches late in the fourth quarter. A few weeks back, former Patriots executive Mike Lombardi indicated Gronkowski isn’t as quick as in the past, and the tight end didn’t exactly dispute it. He said you feel different depending on the day.

Maybe the ankle is bothering him more than first thought. Maybe the ankle injury is putting more stress on other parts of his lower body and causing even more problems. All of this remains a possibility.

On Wednesday, the tight end was asked how he’s feeling physically.

“Feeling good,” he said. “It’s football.”

Any limitations from your ankle?

“No, I feel good,” he said.

In print it seems like no big deal, but the way Gronkowski said it was pretty telling. He was sort of sheepishly laughing, indicating that maybe he is dealing with something. That could explain the lack of production -- for his standards.

Gronkowski doesn’t seem bothered by his numbers being down due to Brady throwing to other players, as it’s all about wins and the Patriots have won three straight and are now 4-2 on the year.

“I wouldn’t say that we have many players on the team that would even get frustrated over a situation like that,” he said. “We’ve got many good players on the offensive side of the ball and we’re just trying to win games. I would say that there’s many players on our team, even if they didn’t get a pass in the game and we won, they’d be totally satisfied. It is what it is. We’re just trying to work together as a unit and whoever gets the ball, we’re trying to do the best in our job to help him score.”

While the Patriots have been able to win despite not getting the normal output from their star tight end, that could change as the season goes. The Patriots really need to find a way to get Gronkowski more involved and stay healthy at the same time. 

Yes, that is easier said than done, but a deep run into January and February likely can’t happen without him.

Related: Julian Edelman among 10 Patriots limited Wednesday

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