Perhaps Bill Belichick knew what he was doing all along, though no one can know for sure. When the New England Patriots drafted Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the second and fourth round, respectively, of the 2010 NFL Draft, the moves were met with optimism. Just how good the Pats' offense would become without the deep threat of Randy Moss was an even bigger shock.
The Pats began basing their offense around multiple tight end packages, after years of success deploying three wideouts or more. The team improved to 14-2 in 2010 from 10-6 as Hernandez and Gronkowski went on to combine for 87 receptions, 1,109 yards and 16 touchdowns. The next year, Gronkowski set NFL records for receiving yards (1,327) and touchdowns (17) by a tight end. Hernandez pitched in 910 yards and 7 touchdowns of his own that year, and the Patriots went on to lose to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.
In 2012, the grand tight end experiment faltered. The Pats still made their way to the AFC Championship Game, but Gronkowski and Hernandez missed a combined 11 games during the regular season. Gronkowski remained a high-usage player -- he earned 7.1 targets per game, compared to 7.75 per in 2011 -- but a broken forearm put an end to another potentially record-breaking regular season. Hernandez suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 2 and struggled to stay on the field until Thanksgiving. Both players shined when healthy, and the outlook appeared rosy for another monster tandem season in 2013.
Then the offseason happened.
What went wrong
Gronkowski has experienced setback after setback since his initial forearm injury. He broke his arm again in the divisional round of the playoffs against the Houston Texans, just two games into his comeback. Then he developed an infection from surgery, which necessitated a third, and then a fourth procedure on his forearm. As Gronkowski was recovering, he opted to undergo surgery to help his chronic back problems. The procedure was reportedly successful, but his timetable for return is still unknown. There is a fair chance he could miss the start of the regular season.
Hernandez's issues are potentially more dire. He recently became embroiled in a homicide investigation. Hernandez has not been ruled out as a suspect and is reportedly an associate of the victim whose body was found by a jogger less than a mile from the tight end's house. Hernandez was questioned and his house was searched, and in the midst of the hullabaloo, it came to light Wednesday that he was sued over an incident in February 2013 in which he allegedly shot a man in the face.
Hernandez slipped to the fourth round in 2010 in part because of reports that he had been involved in gang activity in his hometown of Bristol, Conn. Two Patriots teammates, one current and one past, independently told Sports Illustrated that Hernandez was having troubles with past associates. All of these troubles could result in an NFL suspension, or much worse.
What to do
The worst-case scenario, from the perspective of the Patriots' offense, is that both Gronkowski and Hernandez are forced to sit out simultaneously. Despite the injury troubles for both tight ends, they never sat out at the same time. Gronkowski's broken forearm in Week 11 came just before Hernandez's return from a high ankle sprain on Thanksgiving Day. The Patriots didn't skip a beat after some early season troubles, winning nine of their last 10 regular season games.
The impact of the duo is perhaps overstated in some sense. Gronkowski and/or Hernandez were Brady's top target in just five out of 16 regular season games. The rest were led by either Wes Welker or Brandon Lloyd, both of whom are gone in 2013, but were replaced with approximate facsimiles in Danny Amendola and Donald Jones. Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 163 targets in 2012, which was less than the 174 that Welker received and not overwhelmingly more than the 130 that Lloyd received.
Then again, the loss of both tight ends could eliminate the threat of the position altogether, which is perhaps why Welker and Lloyd were as productive as they were last season. Beyond Gronkowski and Hernandez, the Patriots have Jake Ballard and Michael Hoomanawanui. The former caught 38 passes with the New York Giants in 2011, but spent last season on the Pats' physically unable to perform list recovering from a torn ACL. The latter has never caught more than 13 passes in a season. Neither has established himself as a game-changing threat in the eyes of NFL defenses.
Factor in Michael Jenkins, and the Patriots' top three receivers have each missed at least 10 regular season games over the course of their last three seasons. The Pats' fourth receiver, Aaron Dobson, has great potential as a late second-round pick, but is still very much a rookie. Gronkowski and Hernandez are by no means Teflon, but the Pats may need as many relatively healthy bodies as they can lay their hands on.
The Patriots made a smooth transition from a passing game centered on Moss to a more egalitarian model because Belichick seemed to know before anyone else the types of mismatches that larger athletic bodies could create. He had aces up his sleeve, but heading into 2013, there do not appear to be any similar surprises waiting. Not yet, at least.
Simple faith in Belichick to engineer a great offense with Tom Brady is understandable given the track record that the two have together. The Patriots are Super Bowl favorites, however, in large part because of Gronkowski and Hernandez. Without them, the Patriots may not have the horsepower to win a fourth world championship. Another ringless season could be tough to swallow in Foxborough.