State of the passing game

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola received good news earlier this week, as reports from the Boston Herald and WBZ-TV in Boston stated that he would not need surgery to repair a groin injury suffered in Week 1.

Amendola was spotted at the start of practice both Monday and Wednesday, which seemed to immediately solicit a pair of reactions when word was passed along through both Twitter and our web coverage: Why is he out there? Which in turn led to: Are the Patriots playing cat-and-mouse with the Buccaneers, their Week 3 opponent, trying to paint the perception that Amendola will be available this Sunday, which seems unlikely based on previous reports about his timetable to recover?

Let’s attack these one at a time.

Why is Amendola out there? Well, consider a few things. First, media members are limited to just a small portion of practice -- typically stretching and individual period drills. For all we know, Amendola’s days of work concluded shortly after that time when the team moves forward into 11-on-11 drills and other more up-tempo portions of practice.

Second, as Amendola doesn’t need surgery, this injury seems to fall under the category of “building the strength back up through on-field work.” Put otherwise: The Patriots wouldn’t put Amendola on the practice field if it were inhibiting his rehabilitation. The ends don’t justify the means, not by a long shot.

Which is why a suggestion that Amendola’s presence is tied to convincing the Buccaneers he will play is far-fetched, too.

NFL coaches around the league pour in close to 100 hours a week in preparation for their next opponent, an amount that quickly adds up as they work to turn over every stone imaginable. Count on this: If Amendola hadn’t practiced Monday or again today, the Buccaneers would still be preparing for a Patriots offense that includes him, just as the Bills and Jets accounted for the possibility of facing tight end Rob Gronkowski in recent weeks (Bucs coach Greg Schiano admitted as much Wednesday, saying they’ll prepare for both players until they’re ruled out).

During my time with the Kansas City Chiefs, we faced the Philadelphia Eagles in Michael Vick’s first game back after a league suspension that spanned into the third week of the 2009 regular season. Vick hadn’t played a meaningful football game since 2006 and wasn’t the starter in Philadelphia; that title belonged to Kevin Kolb.

And yet, during the course of our preparation that week, Vick was a talking point during each practice as we schemed ways to prevent him from hurting us with both his legs and his arm. He could present a unique challenge, we thought.

As it turned out, he hardly played, misfiring on two throws and rushing once for a harmless 7 yards.

Vick’s impact was felt more in the week leading up to the game than on the field itself.

And that’s the nature of coaching: Prepare for everything, regardless of how likely or unlikely it is to occur.

Looking Ahead

What became clear in Week 2 is what we all expected to find out: The Patriots' passing attack needs Amendola. The team knows that, too, and it wouldn’t put him in a position to hinder that possibility coming to fruition sooner rather than later.

And while the Patriots might well be without Amendola again this weekend, reinforcements could return in the form of Gronkowski.

ESPN NFL Insider Ed Werder reported earlier this week that Gronk has a 50-50 chance to play this weekend. He’s been a regular at practice in recent weeks, though he has been listed as limited as he continues to recover from back and forearm surgeries.

The tight end was noncommittal on his status when talking with reporters Wednesday, adding only that he’s improving and remains "day-to-day."

When Gronkowski does return, whether it’s this week or further down the line, it will take time for him to work his way back to his old self. After all, it’s been nearly 10 months since he took the field.

But his impact will be quickly felt, not just by the catches and blocks he makes on his own, but the ripple effect it has on others as well. The Patriots need Gronkowski’s presence for the spacing of their offense -- defenses gravitate toward the hulking target, creating room for others.

They certainly need Gronkowski in the red zone, an area in which they’ve struggled out of the gate. The Patriots were among the leaders in red zone offense last season, but dating back to the AFC Championship Game (played without Gronkowski), they’ve scored just three touchdowns in 12 red zone possessions, a measly 25 percent success ratio. Gronkowski’s size and strength make him an imposing target all over the field, but especially in the red zone, where the space to work is condensed.

As is the case with Amendola, questions remain about Gronkowski and his immediate future. These two, when healthy, are the two most potent pass-catchers for the Patriots.

So in a time when the passing game has recently hiccuped, all eyes will remain on Gronkowski and Amendola, both within the organization and from the outside.

How soon they return remains to be seen, but how much they will mean when they do is indisputable.