For the Patriots’ offense to truly run on all cylinders, they need Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez healthy at the same time. That may seem obvious, but they are truly a different team without the twin towers at tight end. Unfortunately, having both healthy at the same time has been easier said than done over the last two seasons.
The two have managed to offset their injuries so that the Patriots haven’t had to play without either of their top tight ends. Hernandez has played in less than 50 percent of offensive snaps 10 times over the last two years, while Gronkowski has played in less than 50 percent of snaps seven times.
The Patriots are 17-3 with both tight ends healthy at the same time in that span (this includes Super Bowl XLVI, when Gronkowski obviously was not 100 percent, but he still played in 45 of 65 total offensive snaps), 11-6 with only one tight end healthy, 6-4 without Hernandez and 5-2 without Gronkowski.
It’s slightly surprising to see that the team’s record is worse without Hernandez than it is without Gronkowski. Without Hernandez, the Patriots beat the Broncos, Rams, Colts and Bills (twice) in 2012 and the Raiders in 2011. They lost to the Cardinals, Ravens and Seahawks in 2012 and the Bills in 2011. When the team was Gronk-less in 2012, they beat the Jets, Dolphins, Jaguars and Texans (twice) and lost to the 49ers and Ravens.
That means that the team had wins against difficult opponents without Hernandez (Broncos, Colts) and Gronkowski (Texans) and losses to easier opponents without Hernandez (Cardinals, Bills), but not Gronkowski. While Gronkowski is arguably the better player, he may be more easily replaced from snap to snap.
Basically, the Patriots generally replaced Gronkowski with a second tight end, while they had to replace Hernandez with a tight end on running downs and a wide receiver on passing downs, which more easily dictated to the defense what the team was planning to do.
Michael Hoomanwanui and Daniel Fells received more playing time while Gronkowski was out than they did while Hernandez was out, while Deion Branch and Julian Edelman received more opportunities in Hernandez’s stead.
Hernandez’s versatility in the joker role may actually cause a greater matchup nightmare than Gronkowski’s role as an inline tight end, too. Hernandez lines up all over the field from wide receiver to tight end to halfback. The Florida product can exploit matchups against defensive backs with his strength and linebackers with his agility. He may not be the blocker that Gronkowski is, but it’s nearly impossible to tell what the team is doing from snap to snap given Hernandez’s positioning on the field.
The Patriots are allowed to continue running the same offense without Gronkowski (even if there is less overall talent), while they had to completely change things without Hernandez. And the first thing to go is deception.
The Patriots ran far more one tight end sets without Hernandez than they did without Gronk simply because Hernandez might be the only tight end in the league that can play his role. The inline tight end is something that Hoomanawanui, Fells or Jake Ballard can play. Hernandez can play wideout and tight end with equal skill.
That’s obviously not to take anything away from Gronkowski. Hernandez allows the offense to be more versatile, while Gronkowski is the better all-around player. The Patriots truly need both to be at their best, though.
That’s why it may make sense to place Gronkowski on the PUP list to start the season. The team can survive without him for the first six games of the season. They proved that during five of the last six games of last season when they went 4-1. Letting Gronkowski fully heal while the season starts would help in theory to keep him healthy through the playoffs, when the two players will be needed most.
With Ballard in the fold, they can survive even better than they did in 2012, too. Ballard is more comparable to Gronkowski than either Fells or Hoomanawanui. He may not have the speed that Gronkowski does, but he has the strength to catch the ball over the middle of the field and he can stay in to block.
It’s been unfortunate that Gronkowski has dealt with injuries during the final games of 2011 and 2012. Things could have been different in either of those games, and it just proves how important it is to keep both players healthy throughout the season.
With only one player in the offense, there’s obviously less talent and versatility, but most of all, the defense is allowed to key in on the one player left. On any opposing defense, there’s probably only one player can cover either Gronkowski or Hernandez. It’s either going to be a physical safety or athletic linebacker. With both players, a second bigger coverage player is needed, and those types of hybrid coverage players don’t exactly grow on trees.
Health has been a major storyline this offseason, especially pertaining to the offense. It will continue to be throughout the season due to the injury history of both fourth-year tight ends. And both players may need to still be on the field in February if there are hopes of a fourth ring coming to Foxboro.