Gronk, Patriots offense are back

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Patriots won five of their first six games to open the 2013 season, sitting in a familiar position atop the AFC East standings.

They won one fewer game during their next six outings, falling to the Jets and Panthers during that time.

But if one were to dive deeper into those two segmented short seasons, a compelling case can be made (with relative ease) that the Patriots are a better team today than when they earned their fifth win of the season, a thrilling 30-27 victory over the Saints in Week 6.

Many factors have contributed to the success -- the improved play of Tom Brady, the emergence of Julian Edelman, the steady secondary performance and the return of Shane Vereen among them -- but perhaps no player has contributed more than Rob Gronkowski, who debuted in Week 7 after missing the first six games to recover from multiple offseason surgeries.

Consider this: When Gronkowski returned to the lineup, the Patriots ranked 22nd in points per game, a far cry from their league-leading total in 2012.

In the six games Gronkowski has played, the Patriots have scored the second-most points per game in the NFL, soaring to sixth in scoring for the full season.

The red zone offense, which struggled mightily minus Gronkowski (30th-best in the NFL), has been the fifth-best in the NFL since his return, due in part to the mismatches Gronkowski creates.

Gronkowski's impact is reflected not just in the team's success, but also that of individual players, as he's helped Brady round into form. Brady's QBR between Weeks 7-13 is third in the NFL, up 12 spots from the weeks preceding it.

His completion percentage with Gronkowski on the field (he's played 77 percent of the offensive snaps since his return) is 64.4, compared to just 58.0 with Gronkowski on the sideline this season.

To further illustrate Gronkowski's red zone impact, Brady has connected on 64.0 percent of his throws with his burly tight end accompanying him, up from just 48.5 percent when he was absent.

And Gronkowski's dominance is evident, of course, in his own statistics, as he has been far and away the most productive tight end since making his return.

His 37 catches for 560 yards and 29 first downs lead all tight ends since Week 7, and, if extrapolated over 16 games, Gronkowski would easily surpass his previous season-best totals.

In just six games, he has proved once again that he's among the most consistent mismatches in the NFL.

"I mean, that's kind of what he does best," Brady said on Wednesday. "He's such a physical presence on the field. His size, his length, and his speed, his quickness. He's a tough matchup.

"It'd be like in other sports where you have great matchups in basketball or something like that, where it's truly a one-on-one and you have a physical advantage," he continued. "Gronk always seems to have a physical advantage; it's just a matter of if the scheme can help find a way to get him open."

Opposing defenses have struggled to find ways to deter Gronkowski, a task Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski, whose team travels to New England for a Week 14 showdown, conceded is difficult.

"He's such a weapon and he's a clutch player, and certainly [Tom] Brady looks to him in those times," he said. "He's so big, can run so well, so athletic. ... He's just a tough matchup. Who do you put on him to cover him?"


Rewinding just a few months back, a return to dominance for Gronkowski, at least this season, seemed less certain.

After multiple offseason surgeries to repair a broken left forearm that originally took place last November and a back procedure in June, a waiting game ensued, as each passing week raised more questions about Gronkowski's eventual return.

Would he be the same player, a dominant two-way tight end who can control defenders in the running game and put up robust numbers in the passing game, too?

Would the eight-year extension he signed last offseason -- one that looked by all accounts at the time to be a shrewd investment by the franchise while also benefiting Gronkowski -- turn out to be money not well spent?

It has taken only six weeks, and any concerns that might have lingered as Gronkowski's absence extended into October can be emphatically silenced.

The proof is his offense's success, his quarterback's success, and his own success.

Rob Gronkowski is back to being one of the best tight ends in football.

"No argument there," Bill Belichick said Wednesday.

(Note: All statistics provided courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information.)