New England ran its record to 7-3 on Sunday with a big 59-24 win over Indianapolis, but as you probably already know, that victory came with a cost. Star tight end Rob Gronkowski—who just earlier in the day had become the first tight end in NFL history to record three straight seasons with double-digit touchdown receptions—sustained a broken arm and is likely out until the playoffs.
When the news began to leak online, the legions of Patriots haters quickly ascended to the top of Schadenfreude Mountain. Sportswriters and fans across the nation took to Twitter, rejoicing in what they took to be "karmic justice." The Patriots were running up the score again—against a team whose head coach is suffering from leukemia, no less—and it cost them! Huzzah!
When people read that Gronkowski actually suffered the broken arm while blocking for the Patriots' final extra point, they gained another reason to castigate Bill Belichick. What on earth was Gronkowski doing playing on special teams, especially late in a blowout? Belichick wasn't just evil; he was also a crazy person with no idea how to manage his roster. This is idiocy.
I will say up front that I am a Patriots fan. Everybody at my website, Football Outsiders, got into writing about football because we're fans. We love the game, but we also love our teams. We even list our teams on the website so that if you are going to accuse us of bias, you can at least accuse the right people.
But this is not a situation in which growing up in the town next to Foxborough (Sharon High School, represent!) blinds me to the fact that Belichick is an evil genius and/or moron who doesn't understand the idea of injury risk. It's a situation in which the Patriots' success blinds many other people to the fact that, when it comes to the circumstances surrounding the Gronkowski injury, New England acts no differently from the rest of the NFL.
The first ridiculous assumption is that there is something wrong with Gronkowski being on the extra-point team. Yes, Gronkowski is the most valuable tight end in the NFL, but a lot of starting tight ends play on extra points. In fact, a lot of the other most valuable tight ends in the league play on extra points. Jimmy Graham plays on the extra-point team, as do Jason Witten, Brandon Pettigrew, and Jermaine Gresham.
Coaches have no problem using their star tight ends on extra points because injuries on extra points are extremely rare. And they don't take their star tight ends out of the game when they're kicking extra points with a big fourth-quarter lead because the depth chart for extra points doesn't go two deep. If you are on for extra points, you go on for extra points, period, unless you've been knocked out of the game by an injury.
A lot of usually sane sportswriters do understand this but are still criticizing the Patriots for the fact that they had their starters in the game late, even up by 28 points.
Peter King, in his Monday Morning QB column at SI.com, wrote: "It's bizarre to me that with a 28-point lead and 7:37 left in the fourth quarter Tom Brady was in the game."
Michael David Smith—who, full disclosure, wrote for Football Outsiders once upon a time—wrote at Pro Football Talk:
Belichick might, however, be the only coach in the NFL who would have his starting quarterback throwing passes well into the fourth quarter with a four-touchdown lead. … In my own opinion, having Brady risking an injury by throwing a pass late in the fourth quarter with the Patriots up by 28 is more egregious than leaving Gronkowski on the field for an extra point.
Now, the fact is that a four-touchdown lead in 2012 may not be as safe as we would like to think. This season has been filled with remarkable fourth-quarter comebacks from deficits previously thought insurmountable. Just last year, the Patriots nearly blew a 28-point lead in the fourth quarter against a far inferior Colts team that had Dan Orlovsky at quarterback instead of Andrew Luck.
But still, a 28-point lead with four or five minutes to play does seem awful impenetrable. Tom Brady threw his final pass with 5:32 left in the game, hitting Wes Welker for a first down at the Indianapolis 12-yard line. At that point, the Patriots led the game 52-24.
Speaking as a Patriots fan, I personally think this is a great time to give Ryan Mallett some valuable NFL experience. Belichick disagrees. But is he the only coach who would dare risk his quarterback's health just so he could "run up the score" that late in the game with such a big lead? Or is he just the only coach who gets criticized for such things?
In Week 4, John Fox still had Peyton Manning on the field in the fourth quarter with a 28-point lead, and Manning was still throwing from a shotgun set with 5:58 left in the game.
In Week 6, Mike McCarthy still had Aaron Rodgers on the field in the fourth quarter with a 25-point lead, and Rodgers was still throwing from a shotgun set with 5:39 left in the game.
In Week 10, Pete Carroll still had Russell Wilson on the field in the fourth quarter with a 21-point lead. That's smaller than the 28-point lead the Patriots had, but Wilson was still in the game in the last two minutes, in the shotgun and passing the ball on fourth-and-3.
Just yesterday, both Drew Brees and Robert Griffin were still in the game late in the fourth quarter. Brees was still passing the ball with a 28-point lead and six minutes left. Griffin was still passing the ball with a 25-point lead and five minutes left.
Fans who are calling out Belichick for "karmic justice" seem to have this belief that the Patriots were passing the ball nonstop up until the moment the game ended. They were not. The Patriots ran 10 plays in the final eight minutes of the game. Eight of those 19 plays were runs by a backup, Shane Vereen. Gronkowski didn't take the field on the entire drive until the extra-point attempt.
Let's say that the Patriots had brought in Mallett one drive earlier, with eight minutes left. If Mallett had led the Patriots to another touchdown and Gronkowski had been injured on the extra point, would that have also been karmic justice? What if the Patriots had scored a touchdown with nothing but Mallett handing the ball off to Vereen, with no passes at all?
When are the Patriots supposed to start kneeling on the ball? With four minutes left? Six? At the beginning of the fourth quarter? Is there a chart for when every NFL team is supposed to start taking a knee? I can see it now: New England is running up the score unless it starts kneeling on the ball with 10 minutes left. Green Bay doesn't have to start kneeling until there are four minutes left. Kansas City, to be safe, should refrain from kneeling until they have showered after the game. Tim Tebow, of course, gets to kneel whenever he feels like it.
Maybe the Patriots should have deliberately taken a knee instead of kicking the extra point after they went up 58-24. I actually had readers on Twitter suggest this. I'm guessing that if the Patriots had declined to even try an extra point, the response today would be something like the response last year when LSU, up 52-3 on Ole Miss, kneeled instead of trying to score on the goal line. If taking a knee is offensive and trying to advance the ball is offensive, what on earth is a team supposed to do?
When it comes to the way they use starters in the fourth quarter of high-scoring games, the New England Patriots are no different from any other team in the NFL. Bill Belichick probably takes a risk by leaving his starters in a little bit too long, but the same goes for John Fox and Mike McCarthy and whoever happens to be running the New Orleans Saints this week. (Honestly, I've lost track.)
I understand that winning teams get a target on their back. I understand that a lot of sportswriters don't like Belichick because he gives the most annoying, information-free news conferences ever. And I understand that a lot of Patriots fans are douchebags, especially those who were booing former Pats great Adam Vinatieri when he came on to kick for the Colts yesterday. It's still no reason to hold the Patriots to an insane standard that doesn't apply to any other team in the NFL. Spygate was five years ago. It's time to get over it.