FOXBORO, Mass. — Replacing Tom Brady is a near impossible feat — the Patriots came to that harsh realization during the 2008 season — but filling the shoes of Rob Gronkowski will be just as challenging.
Gronkowski, who missed five games with a broken forearm earlier this season, reportedly reinjured the arm during Sunday’s win, and is expected to be lost for the rest of the postseason. The Patriots will now need to revise their game plan and try to find a way to make up for Gronkowski’s commanding presence, which even Brady admits will not be easy.
“We had a whole plan built for him and Woody [Danny Woodhead]. We run the first series of the game and all those plans change,” Brady said of Sunday’s win over the Texans. “Obviously it’s a bummer to lose anybody, but someone of Rob’s importance or Danny’s importance, we need guys to step in and fill the void, whether it’s this game or any game after.”
In 11 games this season, Gronkowski caught 55 passes for 790 yards and proved to be Tom Brady’s favorite red zone target with 11 touchdowns. His five-catch-per-game average can easily be spread out among the surplus of options in the Patriots’ arsenal, but making up for his red zone production will be the true test on the Patriots’ Super Bowl quest.
Gronk’s 11 scores were tops among Patriots receivers this season, and even more amazing was that he did it in such limited action. The next closest receiver was Wes Welker with six touchdowns, but he managed that number through a full 16-game slate. So, without Brady’s go-to guy down near the goal line, the Patriots will need to rely on one of their many other playmakers to do just as that title indicates and, well, make plays.
Aaron Hernandez will be chief among those replacements, too, fulfilling the Patriots’ motto of “next guy up” in Gronk’s absence. He’s well aware of the challenge that presents.
“It’s hard to replace a player like him because he’s a freak of nature. Everyone has to step up and everyone has to keep making plays so we can keep it rolling,” Hernandez said. “It’s a big loss and you can’t replace a player like him.”
Hernandez looked fully healthy for the first time in a long time on Sunday, catching six passes for 85 yards and appearing to regain the burst we saw from him before he suffered an ankle injury in Week 2. Last season, Hernandez was a valuable asset to the Patriots’ offense, catching 77 passes and six touchdowns, and if back to full health, he should once again be a key factor.
Even in limited time this season, playing just 10 games, Hernandez caught five touchdown passes and has been a reliable third-down target for Brady over the latter half of the season. He is more than capable of handling some of Gronkowski’s load, but he’ll need some help erasing the void entirely — and that’s where Welker and Brandon Lloyd come in.
Welker led the Patriots with eight catches and a personal postseason career-high 131 yards on Sunday, while Lloyd came up big late in the game with some key first-down receptions and even a touchdown grab to help secure the win. The duo will need to continue their solid production and draw pressure away from Hernandez out in space. If all three receivers can continue producing at such a consistent rate, and Michael Hoomanawanui can pick up the blocking load, as he did on Sunday, then Gronkowski’s loss may not feel quite as heavy.
Gronkowski is the best tight end in the NFL and the Patriots’ best offensive weapon, so his loss clearly presents a major problem for New England on its hopeful journey to New Orleans. But with weapons like Hernandez, Welker and Lloyd at the ready, Brady is more than equipped to weather the storm.