EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 14, 2013

Leaping to AFC Championship

Bill Burt
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — FOXBOROUGH — We can say with certitude that Tom Brady, who might be the best signal caller ever to play his position, is irreplaceable on the New England Patriots.

Just hear what coach Bill Belichick said about his importance after the game

“He’s our leader,” said Belichick. “And we all follow him, we all respect him and he led the team today.”

Those are powerful words from a powerful man in the football world.

Well, we will find out next week or next month about Rob Gronkowski’s role in this offensive juggernaut. The affable Gronkowski was not laughing in the first quarter when the team doctor led him down the stairs behind the bench and into oblivion.

We soon found out that Gronkowski re-broke the forearm he originally broke while blocking on the extra point team at the end of a 59-24 blowout of the Indianapolis Colts on Nov. 18.

While Gronkowski is not on the Brady level of importance, he might be a close second.

All you have to do is look at his contract. For Belichick to offer somebody not named Brady, a 23-year-old at that, a six-year, $58 million deal says it all.

Gronkowski is a freak. He’s 6 foot 7. He’s very strong. He’s deceptively fast. And his hands might be his best trait. He is a matchup nightmare, which is very, very important in the Brady-run offense. At least 33 percent of the time, Brady will change a play, particularly when he has four or five receivers spread out, if he sees a matchup he wants to “expose.”

Gronkowski is too quick for the linebackers and too big and too strong for the defensive backs.

The Patriots won four of five games without Gronkowski, five of six if you include last night’s 41-28 win in which he was a non-factor before leaving midway through the first quarter.

But it was the loss to San Francisco, a legitimate Super Bowl contender, where his absence was glaring.

The 49ers led the Patriots 31-3 before Danny Woodhead (another injured player from the first quarter that didn’t return) scored on a six-yard run with 5:59 remaining in the third quarter.

Brady eventually found his niche that night, eventually tying the score, but Gronkowski’s absence, particularly his ability to catch the 20 to 30 yard pass straight down the middle of the field, was glaring when the Patriots were being dominated.

If you want to know the real reason the Patriots offense was anemic during the fourth quarter of last year’s Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants, look no further than the fact that Gronkowski (he badly sprained his ankle in the AFC Championship vs. the Ravens) was a shell of himself.

Last year, he had the greatest season ever for a tight end (1,327 yards, 17 TDs) and he was paid handsomely for it. It’s tough to take away 83 yards, three first downs and 1 TD a game. That was missing during the Super Bowl.

Well, here we go again. This time he won’t even be a decoy.

While stories had already circulated that Gronkowski was out for the rest of the playoffs with a broken arm, after the game, Belichick claimed he was in the dark.

He might as well had been asked to tell us his funniest Eric Mangini story.

“I’m not sure,” he said.

Ya, right.

While Brady has a bevy of “weapons” at his disposal on offense, including Pro Bowl caliber wide receivers (Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd), running backs (Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen) and at tight end (Aaron Hernandez), they don’t have anyone as special as Gronkowski.

“Obviously, it’s a bummer to lose anybody,” said Brady, “but someone of Rob’s importance ... we need guys to step in and fill the void, whether it’s this game or any game after.”

In this case, easier said than done.

Email Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.