FOXBORO — Something has been missing from the New England Patriots offense for all of the 2013 season.
And I’m not just talking about points, yards and respect, all of which have been conspicuous by their absence.
This was much more meaningful than a statistic.
Less than 20 minutes into Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, “it” was back — the Gronk Spike.
You know, that picturesque — and violent — windmill with his right arm, smashing the ball, usually on its point onto the artificial turf. This spike in the north end zone by Rob Gronkowski bounced sharply about 15 yards into the front row.
It was a 9 out of 10 on the Gronk Spike Scale, a thing of beauty.
But it’s what Gronkowski did before the spike, which put the Patriots ahead 14-0, that set the table for the eventual assault on the offensive record book.
He got open in the end zone and scored a touchdown. It sounds so simple in print, doesn’t it?
Well, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has looked more like Matt Schaub (you remember the benched Houston Texans QB, don’t you?) than the guy he’s been battling the last dozen years, Peyton Manning, for most of 2013.
The only explanation we’ve heard, that has made any sense, is that Brady hasn’t had all of his “weapons.”
He has had those weapons, including Gronkowski, the last few weeks. But Brady didn’t have this Gronkowski, who hauled in a career-best nine receptions for 143 yards.
Wes Welker’s replacement, Danny Amendola, statistically, was immense yesterday with his four catches and 122 yards. The “rest of the story” part of those numbers is 81 yards came on two catches in which a Steeler wasn’t within 10 yards of him. And, on both of those plays, Gronkowski drew two defenders.
“When (Gronk’s) healthy and on the field, he’s tough to stop,” said Brady, who had one of his best career games statistically Sunday night, completing 23 of 33 passes, for four TDs, 432 yards and a 151.8 QB rating.
“He’s a great run blocker and what he does for us in the passing game, it’s tough to match up,” said Brady. “And if the attention goes to Gronk with extra coverage, it opens it up for all the other guys.”
Does Gronk get the lion’s share of the credit for rookie Aaron Dobson’s career night — five catches, 130 yards and 1 TD —or Stevan Ridley’s 115 yards rushing and 2 TDs?
Probably not. There were a lot of Patriots in sync yesterday, which explains why Western Pennsylvania is within a week of calling for the National Guard after giving up a franchise-high 55 points yesterday.
But the Patriots, especially the offense, is a completely different team with and without Gronkowski.
We laughed when Gronkowski’s name was bandied about as an MVP candidate in 2011. With Brady around, everybody not named Bill Belichick has always been second fiddle.
But that might not be the case any more. The Patriots, now a remarkable 7-2 heading into its annual bye, might have officially entered into Super Bowl contender status.
About 30 minutes after the game, Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark, who covered Gronkowski on at least half of his 10 targets last night, was asked if Gronkowski was finally reverting back to the old days, when he was one of the best tight ends in the game.
“No,” said Clark. “What he did tonight was better than the old days. He’s one, tough dude to play against.”