Gronkowski's return means everything

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Things happened fast on Monday morning at New England Patriots team headquarters. Tight end Rob Gronkowski announced that he would play in the team's Sept. 7 opener at the Miami Dolphins, and just moments later, Gronkowski's breaking news was a top story on "SportsCenter."

That's when the question was asked to this reporter on the air: What does it mean for the Patriots?

The answer: Everything.

OK, that might be overstating it a bit given the team's prior success without Gronkowski, but it goes without saying that the Patriots' offense takes on a much different look with Gronkowski on the field. The first place to look is the red zone.

Consider these stats from 2013:

With Gronkowski on the field from Weeks 7-14, the Patriots had a 69 percent efficiency rate in the red zone.

With Gronkowski sidelined from Weeks 1-6, and Weeks 15-17, it was 43.5 percent.

So as the Patriots gradually ease Gronkowski into the mix, as they did last year when it took five games before he was playing every snap, one would think the Patriots want him on the field for every possible red zone play. That's where his 6-foot-6, 265-pound frame and his unique skills show up most.

Perhaps no better example of the effectiveness and attention Gronkowski draws in the red zone came in last year's 24-20 loss to Carolina on Nov. 18. In the third quarter of that game, he lined up split wide left, fought through a jam to run a slant and dragged three defenders into the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown in the third quarter.

Then other times, the attention defenders gave to Gronkowski in the red zone opened opportunities for others.

So while it might not be until a quarter of the way into the season that Gronkowski is an every-play option for the Patriots, the first place we'll be looking for him Sunday is inside the 20-yard line.

That's where he does some of his most notable work.