UNENTHUSED ABOUT any discussion of whether Rob Gronkowski might play tonight against the Falcons, and typically uninterested in discussing theoreticals, Bill Belichick had little use for a question posed to him during his Wednesday press conference.
"He's been a big part of your red zone offense in the past and you're currently ranked 32nd in that category," a reporter asked of Gronkowski, who reportedly did not make the trip and will not play tonight. "If he were to return, what kind of boost can he give that red zone offense?"
"I don't know," Belichick replied. "We'll see. I don't know."
No problem, coach. We've got this one.
Gronkowski would have helped the Patriots in the red zone. A lot.
That's as obvious as the numbers showing that the athletic tight end with an enormous wing span scored more red zone touchdowns (29) than any player in the NFL over his first three years in the league. He's a big target for Tom Brady, with hands capable of making tough catches in the tight spaces he carves for himself.
But while Belichick was clearly trying to be difficult, he was also telling some truth. Because the numbers suggest it will take more than Gronkowski's return to make the Pats more efficient in the red area.
Through three games, the Patriots have made 13 trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line, which is the third most in football, yet they've reached the end zone on just four of those drives, a 30.8 percent success rate. As Belichick's intrepid inquisitor pointed out, that's the NFL's worst. In fact, 15 teams haven't even been to the red zone as many times as the Pats have seen drives stall there.
The glaring absence of Gronkowski has become the go-to excuse for the struggles of an offense that hasn't ranked worse than sixth league-wide in red zone efficiency since it spent a second-round pick on the big lug out of Arizona in the 2010 Draft. However, to explain it so simply is to ignore what the Patriots did after losing him to injury last season.
Gronkowski initially broke his forearm while blocking on an extra point in Week 11. In Week 12, New England converted all three of its red zone opportunities, and it scored multiple touchdowns from inside the 20 in each of the five games it played before the tight end returned.
Even when he came back, he was limited in Week 17 against the Dolphins, but still the team scored on all three of its red zone trips. Then he re-broke his arm early in the divisional round playoff game, rendering him almost a nonfactor, yet the Patriots offense still produced touchdowns on four of six visits to the Texans' red area.
Baltimore finally found a way to stop New England in the AFC championship game, when its favored hosts went 1-for-4 in the red zone. But even with that contest included, the Patriots turned 22 of 31 red zone chances into touchdowns last season in games with Gronkowski either limited or out entirely. That's 71 percent.
In games with Gronkowski fully healthy, the Pats' rate was 65 percent.
Clearly, then, New England can succeed in the red zone without their All-Pro tight end, but what's not yet clear is whether it can do so without the other parts that have gone more permanently missing.
UNDERRATED: The Falcons' sense of desperation. A loss would drop them to 1-3, but they play the Jets next week, then face the Buccaneers after a bye. Both of those games are at home, then they play at Arizona and Carolina. Even with a loss tonight, Atlanta could easily be 5-3 at the midpoint.
OVERRATED: Roddy White. He's a quality receiver, and dangerous when he's at full strength. but he's been a decoy to this point this season. He's played in all three games, and played significant snaps last week, but he's totaled just seven catches for 56 yards. Julio Jones is far more a threat to the Pats.
KEEP AN EYE ON.: Asante Samuel. The ex-Patriot is questionable with a thigh injury, and has already missed one game due to injury. He has 28 interceptions since leaving the Pats after 2007, but don't be surprised if New England tests him to see if he's healthy.
KEY MATCHUP: Osi Umenyiora vs. Nate Solder. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is questionable for the Patriots, and if he's out or limited New England might need to give him or Marcus Cannon help on that side. It'll be up to Solder, then, to handle his business against the ex-Giant on Brady's blind side.
STAT OF THE WEEK: The Falcons have allowed eight first downs by rush this season, and 48 by pass. Tonight could be an opportunity for the Pats' young receivers to take another step forward.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.