With the Patriots trailing the Texans 10-0 in the first quarter of yesterday’s game, Tom Brady drove his team down the field on a six-play, 55-yard drive, ending in a 23-yard touchdown connection to his favorite receiver, Rob Gronkowski. The catch, a third-down, diving, fingertip grab just inches above the Reliant Stadium turf and then his subsequent roll into the end zone showed the incredible athleticism of the 6’6”, 265 pound All Pro whose return has been the shot in the arm that a previously languishing offense has needed. Then in the third quarter the Texans were so concerned about Gronkowski’s presence in the end zone that they allowed Shane Vereen to catch a ball in the flat and score virtually unscathed, further illustrating just how important his presence on the field is for the team’s outlook.
The Pats have now played six games with Gronkowski after enduring the first six games of the season without their star tight end. The missing piece to the offense has been obvious and the difference in performance since his return has been dramatic.
In the six games he was sidelined while recovering from back and multiple forearm surgeries, New England’s offense ranked 22nd in the NFL (behind division rivals Buffalo and Miami) by averaging just 20.8 points per game. Tom Brady’s completion percentage over that span was 56.9% ranking New England 26th. The team averaged 246.7 gross passing yards per game to place 20th and yards per completion was 28th in the league at 10.9. Brady ranked 17th in passer rating at 79.5
In the six games playing with Gronkowski, the turnaround has been startling. Only the Broncos have scored more points per game (33.2 to 32.8), the team’s 297.8 passing yards per game ranks fourth in the NFL, Brady has completed 64.7% of his throws, ranking fifth and yards per completion have increased by a full point to 11.9 to rank 13th.
On October 20 against the Jets, Gronkowski’s first game of the year, Brady threw to Gronkowski 17 times, which through yesterday’s games ranked first among targets for all NFL tight ends in a game this season, tied for eighth among all receivers and is just two shy of the aggregate total of targets thrown to all of the other New England tight ends through all 12 games. Despite playing just half of the team’s games, Gronkowski has nearly caught up to Julian Edelman for the team lead in receiving yardage (711 to 560), is in a four-way tie for the most touchdown catches (4) and has caught 27 of the 39 balls thrown to him over the past four games (69.2%).
The score in Houston also marked the fourth consecutive game in which Gronkowski has reached the end zone, tying Jimmy Graham of the Saints for the longest TD-scoring streak for a tight end this season and putting him two shy of his career-high streak of six set in November and December 2011. Despite Gronkowski missing half of the season, only Graham has more 100-yard receiving games among tight ends (six to three) only San Francisco’s Vernon Davis is averaging more yards per catch (16.8 to 15.1) and by averaging 93.3 receiving yards per contest, Gronkowski is ahead of second-pace Graham by 7.3 yards. He also places fourth among all receivers in first downs (29) since making his return, trailing only Calvin Johnson, Alshon Jeffrey and Brandon Marshall.
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He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrateds 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.
Now living in Marblehead, hes focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.