In the 2011 AFC Championship Game against the Ravens, Bernard Pollard happened to Rob Gronkowski. And the Patriots offense ground to a halt for the rest of the game before being held to just 17 points in the Super Bowl.1 In 2012, it was a freak injury on an extra point and then a reinjury in the divisional playoffs against the Texans. After that, the Patriots offense put up only 14 against the Ravens in the 2012 AFC Championship Game. Last year against the Browns, he took one of those horrible hits that make you cringe and want to keep him away from running seam routes in any regular season game.2 And the Pats put up 16 points against a mediocre and banged-up Broncos defense in the AFC Championship game.3
The Gronkowski injuries provide a tantalizing set of what-ifs. The Patriots have been within two games of a title the last three years. A healthy Gronkowski could have made the difference in any of those years. The Football Outsiders’ Almanac shows that the Pats’ offense was actually pretty good late in the season without Gronk, but they were terrible early in the year―they actually had a negative DVOA without him. Over the last two regular seasons, the Pats have averaged 34 PPG with Gronkowski, but six points fewer in New England’s 14 Gronk-less games.
And as much as I believe in stats, I’m not sure we really need them to tell us that Gronkowski is one of the most important non-quarterbacks in football. If he’s healthy through the playoffs, the Patriots seem likely to be neck-and-neck with the Broncos. With a defense that may be one of the best in football, I’d argue that the Pats should be a little better than the Broncos, even.4 Regardless, the Pats offense has been uniformly excellent with a healthy Gronkowski since 2010. Taking just the games where Gronk played, the Pats have ranked 1st, 3rd, 1st, and 2nd in offensive DVOA over the last four years.
That means one of the most important questions in the NFL in 2014 is whether we’ll see a healthy Gronkowski through the end of the season and into the playoffs. At this point, I think the reflexive answer is to assume that the answer is “no.” It certainly doesn’t feel like he’s going to be healthy. But previous examples of players getting hurt can provide some insight into Gronkowski’s actual chances.
Recovery for Injured Young-and-Excellent Players
In his second year, Gronkowski had an Approximate Value (AV) of 14. He then played only parts of the next two seasons due to injury. Considering players who started their careers since 1970, there have been 34 who had an AV season of at least 13 in their first two years and who then did not start at least 25% of the games in the following two years. This is a reasonable list of young-and-excellent players who then missed significant time in years 3 & 4. Most of these players missed time due to injuries, although some of those cases were a bit debatable.5 Regardless, the conclusions are pretty much the same if we drop some of those cases.
Best Early AV
% of Starts in Year 5
AV Year 5
Only 7 of these players started all of the games in their fifth season. On average, they started 63% of the games in their fifth season and provided about 7 points of AV to their teams, about half of the average production from the outstanding rookie or second year. The people who started a full season offered 12 points of AV, so much of that drop in production came from injuries to the rest of the group.
One interesting thing in the table is how all of the top performers in the early years failed to play a full fifth season. Every single player who had an early season of 15 AV or higher, and who got hurt in the next two seasons, failed to play a full fifth season. This could be a coincidence and I lean towards that being the case, but it stands out enough to wonder that these players might have been stretched too much in that early-career season, leaving them open to repeated injury down the road.6
From our sample of 33 players, 21% of the young-and-excellent-then-injured players made it through a full year five. Of course, that 21% may still overestimate Gronk’s chances of playing sixteen games in 2014. He missed time in both of those seasons, perhaps indicating a greater propensity for getting hurt than a player who missed time during only a single season. And he’s still recovering from his torn ACL and MCL injury, as he just began participating in 7-on-7 drills on August 11th. The table below looks just at the young-and-excellent players who missed more than 25% of the games in each of the third and fourth seasons.
Best Early AV
% of Starts in Year 5
AV Year 5
So Gronkowski’s chances of playing a full season don’t look great. He may have been more than just unlucky to have Pollard land awkwardly on his ankle and T.J. Ward crash into his knee just as he was planting his foot. Moreover, this analysis didn’t account for Gronkowski’s college injuries, which may tell us something about his chances of getting hurt again, too. At the same time, the previous examples suggest Gronkowski is likely to play a significant chunk of the season. More than half of the young-and-excellent-then-injured players started at least half of the games, although I haven’t crunched the numbers to see which were still recovering from old injuries as of August.
This brings me to today’s suggestion: Why not make the games Gronk plays the ones that count the most? Even when Gronkowski plays, the Patriots also have some control over Gronkowski’s exposure to injury, too. As his extra point injury suggested, there’s real value in limiting your indispensable players’ chances of getting hurt.8 No matter how much people claim that injury was unforeseeable, people get hurt when contact happens, so there seems little to lose by keeping him away from it. It’s not just extra points. The Patriots could consider changing Gronkowski’s pass routes during the regular season to less frequently run him on the kinds of routes that leaves him exposed to blind hits.In the regular season, the smart thing to do would probably be to target Gronk on more hooks and corners―and sitting him whenever possible―doing what they reasonably can to have their biggest weapon on the field for the playoffs. The numbers suggest there’s no reason to think it’s inevitable that Gronkowski will be watching those games in January from the sideline, but their chances go down a lot if they just play him every game and hope for the best.
- Yes, a very limited Gronk played in SB XLVI, but he had only two catches and jumped like me when battling Chase Blackburn on Brady’s underthrown fourth quarter pick. [↩]
- The link is of Gronk shopping for groceries instead of the hit, because who wants to see that again? [↩]
- The only two games all season where the Broncos gave up fewer points were against Houston and Oakland. [↩]
- Unless Manning is just much better than Brady, I guess. I’m not seeing that. Denver’s only other big advantage is at receiver. Fine, but a healthy Gronkowski seems to even up a fair bit of that. And then there’s Brandon LaFell’s impending record-breaking season. I’m about to get shouted down. [Chase note: I don't know how much longer I can stomach Andrew writing for Football Perspective.] [↩]
- In addition, I omitted two players who were obviously benched for other reasons: Shaun King and Derek Anderson. And Joe Cribbs, who went to the USFL for the fifth year of his pro career. [↩]
- Their first seasons don’t compare, but check out Otis Armstrong’s second season and compare it to Gale Sayers. The comparison is eerily similar. Take away the injuries and maybe we remember Armstrong more prominently. [↩]
- I’m not seeing any evidence for Tony Reed having been hurt, so 1 out of 6 might be the right number to think about. [↩]
- For those who say there’s nothing that could have been done about this, it’s not like he got hurt in the shower or grocery shopping. If he isn’t on the field, he doesn’t get hurt. [↩]