Rob Gronkowski took a shot to the head with less than two minutes to play in the first half of the AFC championship game, immediately went into concussion protocol and never returned. New England scored later in the possession to cut Jacksonville’s lead to four, but saw that lead jump back up to 10 at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
In stepped Danny Amendola, making one big play after another to carry the Patriots to their eighth Super Bowl since 2001.
The “next man up” mantra has been well-versed with the Patriots in the past, especially in the receiving corps. Last season, it was about Gronkowski. This season, it’s been about replacing Julian Edelman’s production. Depending on whether Gronkowski passes the concussion protocol, it may again be about replacing his production in Super Bowl LII. But if history is any indication, the Patriots won’t exactly be up a creek without a paddle if they’re without their star tight end.
That’s not to say Gronk isn’t a game-changer. He passed Dallas Clark on Sunday for the most postseason receiving yards ever by a tight end (856) and his 10 touchdown receptions are tied for third all-time among all pass-catchers. But Tom Brady has found others in his absence and put up roughly the same numbers as he does when Gronkowski is on the field.
Gronk owns the middle of the field when he plays. Of his 60 targets in the postseason since 2014, 32 of them have been on either a curl, dig, or slant route. He also frequently hooks up with Brady on vertical routes down the middle of the field, much like he did twice on the game-winning drive against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15.
However, STATS X-Info data shows when Gronkowski has missed time in the postseason, Brady has actually thrown more over the middle. With him in the lineup, Brady threw between the numbers 53 percent of the time. Without Gronk, that number rose to 56 percent.
The next man in simply ventures out over the middle a bit more with No. 87 out of the lineup. From 2014-15 with Gronkowski in the lineup during the postseason, Edelman ran just under 38 percent of his routes over the middle (cross, dig, drag, post, slant routes). With Gronk out during the 2016 postseason, he ran just over 47 percent of his routes over the middle. Amendola’s numbers look about the same — 26 percent of his routes were over the middle with Gronkowski, just under 47 percent without him.
It’s the same production, just different receivers.
The splits look similar in the red zone. With Gronkowski in the game, he is one of Brady’s favorite targets along with Edelman. Amendola has historically been the guy to get squeezed in the red zone, but with Gronkowski out, he finds ways to get involved. After only being targeted once in the red zone in 2015, he was thrown to three times last season with Gronkowski out of the lineup. During the second half alone of the AFC Championship on Sunday with both Gronkowski and Edelman out, Amendola was targeted three times (and once more from the 23-yard line).
Upped usage isn’t the moral of this story, though. An injury to any player on any team obviously means different guys will be more involved. New England isn’t special in that regard. It’s the fact that Brady doesn’t skip a beat, and that those Gronkowski replacements put up historical numbers without him.
Chris Hogan hasn’t even been mentioned yet, although his yardage last postseason (332) combined with Edelman (342) was the second-highest receiving yards total ever by a pair of teammates, trailing only Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad of the 2003 Carolina Panthers (756 combined).
The domino effect of Edelman (in part) replacing Gronkowski meant someone needed to replace Edelman’s original role, which fell to Hogan last season. That role is in large part towards the boundaries, where Hogan was targeted more than half the time on comeback, corner, flat, out, wheel, and go routes.
If Gronkowski cannot play in the Super Bowl on Feb. 4, Hogan may again have a larger role. Or it could be Brandin Cooks, who was the team’s leading receiver all year and who was targeted seven times after the Gronkowski injury in the AFC Championship, totaling 48 yards in receiving and another 68 in penalty yardage.
If Gronkowski cannot play, the Patriots’ game plan will be different, but it will be the same understudies stepping up and replacing production with the same quarterback and head coach in charge of it all. It’s not always the same ingredients, but it’s a recipe for success.