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Adam Kaufman

Who's More Important to Patriots if They Need One Win, Tom Brady or Rob Gronkowski?

If the NFL’s regular season ended today, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady would be the odds-on favorite to win his third MVP award, edging out the likes of Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, and DeMarco Murray.

Not bad for a guy some fans and media wanted traded or benched after that blowout loss in Kansas City in Week 4, while he was reportedly privately on the outs with management. Don’t remember? Ask owner Robert Kraft.

With the Pats just more than halfway through their schedule, ESPNBoston’s Mike Reiss offered an interesting discussion:

Forget league MVP, is the once thought to be declining Brady even the most valuable member of his own team after a 7-2 start? To Reiss, that answer is no; he’d select Rob Gronkowski.

Before we become bogged down with some dispute revolving around Brady and Luck heading into this weekend’s matchup in Indy, let’s advance Reiss’s thought for a moment and alter the debate:

If the Pats had to win one game, which player is the bigger necessity: Brady or Gronkowski?

My vote?

Gronkowski.

The knee-jerk reaction, especially in the wake of what we’ve seen over the last five weeks, would be to select Brady. In a quarterback’s league, he’s one of the best you’ll find. Hell, Pro Football Focus’s Sam Monson finally came around and said Brady is the best.

Over his last five games, all wins, Brady has completed 67.5 percent of his passes for 1,601 yards and 18 touchdowns, with only one interception. The previous four contests resulted in a 2-2 mark as the veteran had 791 yards, four scores, two picks, and a 59.1 completion rate.

Why the change? It starts with an offensive line that’s finally meshing, giving Brady more time to work in the pocket, either to survey his receiving options or show a little mobility. The stability has also presented him with an ability to have more success in a hurry-up offense. Beyond that, Brandon LaFell has emerged as a reliable first-down target and someone who can dependably catch a handful of balls for at least 50 yards and, often, a trip to the end zone. Tim Wright, a less-involved member of the offense, has also had a penchant for success in the red area.

But, the biggest difference?

That’s clearly Gronkowski, who’s finally healthy from offseason ACL/MCL surgery. His performance has been almost cyborg-like. Watching him, you’d have no idea the physical tight end ever had an issue with his knee, back, forearm, or ankle. With plays like this, it just doesn’t compute.

Since Gronkowski’s early-season snap-limitations and slow start allowed him to regain his leg-strength and game-shape after he missed the preseason, New England’s offense has evolved from one of the worst in the NFL to a group averaging 31.2 points (third) and displaying 2007-like results. Specifically, the average has jumped from 20 points a week with a passing game near the bottom of the league to 40.2 and an elite aerial attack over the two stretches.

Tom Brady Rob Gronkowski.jpg

All the while, Brady’s top pass-catcher has turned 36 receptions into 516 yards and five touchdowns in five outings – the best five-game run of his career – after three scores on 147 yards and 13 grabs in the previous four. His completion percentage to Gronkowski alone has risen from 50 percent to 73.4.

Want more evidence?

With a still lumbering Gronkowski, who played in just 51 percent of his team’s offensive snaps in September, the Pats scored touchdowns in 6-of-11 (54.5 percent) trips to the red zone. Since, they’re 15-for-25 (60 percent); the staggering difference coming in opportunity (nearly twice as many chances per game). To no surprise, the tight end has been on the field for 79 percent of those snaps.

When Gronkowski has been healthy, a designation that’s existed since the start of Week 6 and, really, his performance in Week 5, he is the premier player in the league at his position. That is no longer true of Brady at age 37. It’s entirely possible Gronkowski is the best tight end in NFL history, having already reached 50 receiving touchdowns in 59 contests, and he’s only 25.

At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, Gronkowski is indefensible; an unstoppable beast willing to push an opponent aside, drag him along, or run him over the moment he has the ball in his mitts. He’s a match-up nightmare and a touchdown machine with incredible anticipation skills.

As you can see in the footage above, Gronkowski is capable of bailing Brady out on a bad ball, or just hauling in one that smaller, weaker players couldn’t catch. Other men in the Pats’ offense can’t do that for Brady, but the party-loving tight end could do it for any quarterback in the league.

Yes, there are some players who make Brady look even better than he is. It’s a short list; maybe occupied by only Gronkowski and Randy Moss. Most everyone else on a significantly longer list is a product of Brady.

Beyond his abilities as a target or the fact he’s borderline automatic in the red zone, Gronkowski’s mere presence – which has been known to demand double or even triple-coverage – opens up his teammates for better opportunities. His size, speed, and abilities dictate defensive coverage. You can’t possibly cover him and take away everyone else. He also remains a factor in the running game as a force of nature as a blocker. To use a basketball phrase, Gronkowski plays well without the ball in his hands. His versatility is unparalleled.

As first-year teammate Darrelle Revis said of men tasked to cover Gronkowski, “I feel sorry for them.”

“Imagine trying to cover that,” lamented Brady, before touching on ways the Pats tight end can force opposing defenses where he wants them, which can create panic.

"Sometimes,” continued Brady, “when you get a bigger receiver on the perimeter and a smaller [defensive back] is matched up on him, the mindset of the DB might even change because they think, ‘Oh my God, this guy is so much bigger and taller and stronger and what am I going to do?’ And then they’re already beat sometimes before the ball is snapped. That’s a good mindset for an offensive player when he’s making those plays and the defenders are now all of a sudden defensive before the ball is even snapped, not only are they at a physical disadvantage, they become at a mental disadvantage in the confidence in their ability to make a play. That plays into it, too.”

So, getting back to our question: Who can the Pats least afford to lose with one win on the line; Brady or Gronkowski?

Again, my answer is Gronkowski. Sounds like it might even be Brady’s.

Let’s dissect some arguments to help the discussion.

You think Gronkowski could pair with just any quarterback and win 12 games every season?

That’s not the debate. We’re talking about one game here, not a full season. Over the course of an entire year, Brady’s position is more important and his leadership, decision-making abilities, and experience are far too valuable. Plus, one pass-catcher isn’t going to go for 100-plus yards and a score on a weekly basis. It’s almost impossible to make the playoffs with a below-average QB, unless he’s surrounded by a plethora of talented offensive options and a dynamic line protecting him.

How do you keep Gronkowski healthy for the big game?

How do you ensure Brady’s health? Gronkowski has the injury history, yes, but this is a fantasy. In either case, both guys are completely healthy. Play along!

It’s not about Brady or Gronkowski; defense wins championships, and this D is legit!

For the purposes of this discussion, the defense is a wash. Of course it’s a factor in general, but the question here is which player puts the offense in a better position to win one game. Would the Pats score more points with Brady throwing to Wright and Michael Hoomanawanui, among his other regulars, or with rookie Jimmy Garoppolo using his mobility to spread the field and take advantage of Gronkowski’s many game-altering strengths against defenses that have shown they can’t handle him? The defensive game-plan wouldn’t change in either case, and you can’t win 0-0.

Garoppolo?! What’s he ever done?

Sure, Garoppolo is an unproven rookie, albeit one who has looked awfully poised and composed in limited preseason and regular season action. So - essentially - was Brady when he stepped in for Drew Bledsoe in 2001 and helped carry that New England offense to the title while its defense did most of the heavy-lifting. To the last point, who’s to say that couldn’t happen again so long as Garoppolo was competent?

Also, don’t forget Brady didn’t do it all by himself under center during that 2002 winter. Brady was hurt in the first-half of the AFC title game against the Steelers, and Bledsoe – having not played since Week 2 – stepped in with a 7-3 lead to efficiently finish off a 24-17 win and take the Pats to Louisiana.

Oh, and remember 2008? Gronkowski obviously wasn’t in the mix yet, but an unproven kid named Matt Cassel took over a historically-great Pats offense and won 11 games. I know, I know, it was a five-game drop-off from the previous season. The point, though, is a different QB didn’t suddenly put Bill Belichick’s team in position for a .500 (or worse) season. That’s not to say it’s a plug-and-play offense at quarterback but success is possible even without Brady. Gronkowski would create the same defensive mismatches and subsequent opportunities for his teammates, no matter who is throwing the ball. You can game-plan to take him away, but that only further frees up the rest of the arsenal.

And, most important, Brady’s won three Super Bowls; how many has Gronk won?

Brady won his championships in three of his first four years, before Gronkowski was legally old enough to drive. It’s true; the tight end hasn’t won a title in four seasons in the league (this is his fifth), but that’s been a bigger result of an abundance of injuries than a lack of opportunity.

In 2011, an ankle injury made Gronkowski little more than a decoy in a Super Bowl loss to the Giants. He caught two balls for 26 yards in a fluky 21-17 defeat after making 17 grabs for 232 yards and three TD’s in that postseason’s prior two wins. A healthy Gronkowski would have almost assuredly meant a fourth Lombardi trophy.

In 2012, the Patriots lost 28-13 in the conference championship to the Ravens. Gronkowski was absent with a broken forearm.

And, last season, there was that 26-16 AFC title game loss to the Broncos, when Gronkowski was out with a knee injury and Brady was stuck throwing passes to Austin Collie, Matt Mulligan, and Matthew Slater.

What have we said after each and every one of those losses?

The Pats would’ve won had they had a healthy Gronkowski.

The fact is Brady wasn’t good enough those last three years. Even without Gronkowski, he had Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Deion Branch, Brandon Lloyd, and others for some of those games. Still, the offense averaged 15.3 points, while the QB completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 873 yards, four touchdowns, and three picks. And the Patriots weren’t exactly facing marquee defenses.

All due respect to Brady’s track-record, but these aren’t the early-2000s anymore. After a 10-0 start, Brady is 8-8 in his last 16 playoff games. With a capable Gronkowski, he’s 2-1. Imagine having him – the real Gronkowski – on the field for any of those games. Not having him has been a defining factor in the last few cold winters not getting warmed up by Duck Boat parades.

Early last decade, Brady was aided by a balanced offense of generally lesser-talent and a tremendous defense. This year, how do we know the offense wouldn’t go back to averaging 20 points a game without its stud pass-catcher, even with Julian Edelman and improved play from LaFell and the line? Don’t forget what it looked like in 2013 without Gronkowski.

In a perfect world…

Talk to your friends. Read the comments section. This debate will be more split than you’d anticipate. Truthfully, it’s more of a 1A/1B discussion than a No. 1 vs. No. 2.

As we know, Brady and Gronkowski are at their best when they have one another. Together, they’re believed to be unstoppable; almost to mythological proportions. If both are healthy come January, we’ll find out if that’s true.

But, if you could only have one…

Who would it be ... Brady or Gronkowski?

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