Patriots need healthy Gronkowski to contend in 2014

Patriots need healthy Gronkowski to contend in 2014

College Contributor Network

It was a simple cut across the middle. Just a six-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Gronkowski, followed by a thunderous "Gronk Spike." We've seen this a million times before. But what we weren't used to seeing was Brady's reaction.

His enthusiastic head-butting, helmet-smacking celebration sent a welcome message loud and clear. Gronk is back.

Is the every down, thousand-yard, 50-plus catch version of Gronk back? Not by any stretch of the imagination. He played only 39 of the Patriots' 86 offensive snaps and finished with four catches for 40 yards and a touchdown.

But, he was there for all nine of the Patriots' red zone snaps, as well as 15 of the 20 third and fourth down plays. When Brady needed him most, Gronk was there.

That's huge for Brady, who is clearly frustrated with the Patriots' dwindling offensive arsenal. He's lost Moss, Hernandez, Light, Welker, Mankins, and twelve games worth of Gronkowski over the last few years -- and those are just the Pro Bowlers.

Gronkowski, who spent the offseason rehabbing a torn ACL and MCL, was pretty pumped to be back on the gridiron as well.

"I mean, it feels good to play football again, to be out there with the team," said the six-foot-six tight end.

"Being out there with your teammates, you win as a team, lose as a team. I've just got to keep on improving every single week."

Gronkowski added that he's "got a lot to work on," and that he's got to "keep working hard in practice."

The most obvious improvement Gronk will have to make is in his conditioning. The Pats will continue to ease him back into the offense, but they need him to be out there most of the time -- instead of playing the situational role he did against Miami.

Having Gronkowski out there most of the time would be a huge plus for the Patriots, but at this point they are just hoping they can have him suit up for most of the games. The two-time Pro Bowler has missed an average of seven games over the past two seasons.

A healthy Gronkowski isn't just a game-changer, he's a game-breaker. He transforms the Patriots' entire offense. Not only is he a record-breaking pass-catcher, he is an exceptional blocker. He commands double teams and the opposing teams' best defenders, freeing up the field for Brady's other targets.

Just take a look at last year's Patriots. In their six games without Gronkowski, they averaged just over 20 points and around 350 yards per game. In Gronk's first six games back, those numbers jumped to 32.8 points and over 400 yards per game. For his part, Brady's passer rating surged from 79.5 to 96.7.

So yeah, Brady was pumped for that six-yard completion, and for good reason. The Gronk-less Pats have a mediocre offense. Pair that with the Patriots defense, which is off to a very disappointing start, and you've got a recipe for trouble.

So far, the "Gronk Spike" counter is at one. For the Patriots to contend, they will need it to reach at least double digits.

Khari Thompson is a sophomore at Hampton University, who hails from Boston, MA. Majoring in Broadcast Journalism, Khari is the play-by-play voice of Hampton Lady Pirates basketball. Follow him on Twitter: @thatkidchief