MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- There was a disconnect between what some New England Patriots players said about the crazy final play in their 34-33 loss to the Miami Dolphins and how the coaching staff approached it personnel-wise.
It sparked an obvious question: Why was Rob Gronkowski on the field as the last line of defense?
Gronkowski playing on defense isn’t anything new, as his role as a safety in the Hail Mary package -- in which he is assigned to jump and possibly bat down a long pass -- has been well-documented. That’s the package one player said was on the field for the final play.
Why that was the case is puzzling and, pending a more detailed explanation from Bill Belichick, appears to be a major coaching miscue because the Miami Dolphins had the ball at their own 31-yard line.
“We knew what was going to go down. They’re too far to throw a Hail Mary, so we knew it was going to be a lateral situation,” safety Duron Harmon said.
Added safety Devin McCourty, “I knew it wasn’t going to be a Hail Mary. He would have had to throw the ball pretty far to reach the end zone.”
And therein lies the disconnect: The Patriots had their Hail Mary package on the field -- subbing out one of their fastest players and best tacklers in McCourty for a taller, less-mobile option in Gronkowski to hopefully bat down a pass -- despite the low likelihood of a Hail Mary.
For a coach like Belichick who prides his team on playing smart, situational football, and playing the full 60 minutes, it doesn’t add up.
Gronk was in because that is a "last play" defense. The last play can be a hail mary pass. In a situation where chances of a hail mary are low, the "jumper" (Gronk) should be substituted for another safety/DB. For tackling purposes. That was not done.— Tedy Bruschi (@TedyBruschi) December 9, 2018
Former Patriots linebacker and ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi tweeted that in cases with low probability for a Hail Mary, Gronkowski should be substituted for a defensive back for tackling purposes. NBC analyst and former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison opined on “Football Night in America” that Belichick “outsmarted himself” by playing Gronkowski over McCourty.
“I’m not used to seeing the Patriots play such sloppy, bad situational football,” Harrison said.
Asked about Gronkowski’s presence on the field, Belichick said after the game, “They could throw it deep or they could have run the Desperado-type play, which is kind of an in-between 20-yard pass and then it turned into Desperado [with multiple laterals].”
The value of Gronkowski, at 6-foot-6, would have been for the deep pass.
“It’s called ‘rebound.’ If they throw the ball up in the air, you want a guy like Gronk to bat the ball down,” said cornerback Jason McCourty, who was one of seven defenders to drop into coverage on the play. “If you knew what the exact play is, you can sub all 11 and get the exact people you want on. You just don’t know. You’re just trying to prepare for any and everything. We just didn’t do a good enough job.”
McCourty said he figured it would either be a Hail Mary or a hook-and-ladder play.
When Gronkowski was sidelined for the team’s October win over the Bears, receiver Josh Gordon filled his role as a safety in the Hail Mary package. The difference on that play, however, was that the Bears had the ball at their own 45 and the Hail Mary was the more obvious call (Mitch Trubisky’s excellent throw was caught at the 2 and the Patriots rallied for a game-saving tackle).
Seeing Gronkowski back in that spot Sunday, Gordon said, “I'm sure he was probably expecting a pass or something downfield, something he could jump up and go get, as opposed to pursuit, something that no offensive player has too much prowess of. So that's unfortunate. But you live and learn.”
In fairness to Gronkowski, one could make a case that the play should have never made it to him. Poor angles taken by some of his teammates, along with shoddy tackling, left him as the helpless last line of defense.
“He goes back there all the time when he’s healthy, so there was no surprise there. That’s what was called, that’s what we had to do,” Harmon said.
The question of why that was the call lingers.