Following the New England Patriots’ 21-17 loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI Sunday night in Indianapolis, many people were scratching their heads and asking the ever rhetorical ‘what if’ question. As in what if Tom Brady had completed that pass late in the fourth quarter to Wes Welker? What if Brady doesn’t get called for intentional grounding in the end zone (resulting in a safety) on the Patriots’ first play from scrimmage? What if the Patriots’ defense doesn’t get flagged for too many men on the field during the Giants’ second offensive series, extending a drive that would result in New York’s first touchdown of the game?
Yet for all the hypothetical’s one can throw out in hindsight of Sunday’s contest, the biggest ‘what if’ might have surrounded the Patriots’ starting tight end, Rob Gronkowski. Before the game even began Gronkowski had been diagnosed with a high-ankle sprain that he had suffered during the AFC Championship two weeks earlier against the Baltimore Ravens. While media pundits and football analysts generally concurred this would not limit Gronk’s speed, they did hint that where he might have trouble was changing directions, trying to plant his foot and then cut up field.
As the game progressed, it did not appear that Gronkowski’s injury would have that much of an impact on New England’s offense. Wide receivers Wes Welker and Deion Branch would combine for 112 yards receiving, and fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez would add 60 yards himself. In addition, tailback Danny Woodhead caught five passes for 42 yards, including a 4-yard TD pass from Brady late in the second quarter.
However, there is no doubt that the limited playing time Gronkowski had due to his sore ankle had a negative effect on the Patriots’ offense. Brady was only able to complete two passes to Gronkowski for 26 yards, and only targeted him one more time, that being a wildly underthrown pass that the Giants' Chase Blackburn would intercept. Although Gronkowski technically did nothing wrong on the play (as he was wide open), one has to wonder if the limited practices disrupted the timing even in the slightest between quarterback (Brady) and receiver (Gronkowski).
Another factor to consider is for a good portion of the game the Patriots’ drives would stall once they crossed into the Giants’ side of the field. Certainly the fact that Brady couldn’t count on Gronkowski had to shrink their playbook considerably, even with Welker and Hernandez having a decent game. Add to that the fact that Gronkowski was Brady’s favorite red zone target all season long, and it is no wonder the Patriots finished the evening with a mere 17 points.
If there was one play, however, that epitomized the impact that Gronkowski’s injury had on the game, it might have been the final hail mary Tom Brady heaved as the game clock wound to triple zeroes. The ball seemed to hang in the air for several seconds before being tipped by a Giants’ defender, only to fall a few feet from Gronkowski. Even if he had been healthy he might not have been able to make that catch, but it does make a person wonder if Gronk was 100% would he have tried to lay out and make the reception.
So Rob Gronkowski’s injury did not cost New England the Super Bowl, but had he been 100% healthy prior to the game the Patriots would have definitely been in a better position to win it.