By Alan Burke
---- — When the Patriots face the rival New York Jets this Thanksgiving Day, it will be without their star tight end, the seemingly unstoppable Rob Gronkowski, who underwent surgery yesterday for a broken arm sustained in Sunday’s 59-24 dismantling of the Indianapolis Colts.
It’s the gaping victory margin that has had some football experts insisting it did not have to be. They say Gronkowski, injured while blocking for a single point after touchdown at the end of the game, shouldn’t even have been on the field. They argue that it was reckless and pointless to have him out there, risking injury with the game already decided.
Such critics often fault the Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick for a tendency to run up scores. They even suggest that Sunday’s loss of the multimillion-dollar tight end was mere karma, an example of the football gods punishing the coach’s hubris and greed.
So they say.
But on a walk of North Shore streets, an observer is hard-pressed to find people agreeing with these criticisms. Even those who wonder about the decision often do it tentatively.
Former Peabody Public Schools teacher Victor Passcantilli shakes his head, demanding, “Who else would you put out there? Someone incapable of doing the job? Gronkowski is there for a reason. He’s a good blocker. Whenever the coach calls for the extra point team, these are the guys that go out there.”
As a blocker, of course, Gronkowski’s mission was to protect the kicker, Stephen Gostkowski, and his holder, Zoltan Mesko the punter, two other key players who might have been exposed to injury without good blocking.
“I’ll tell you what,” says Scott Barclay, a salesman on a visit to Depot Liquors in Beverly, “I personally would not have left him in there. But in Belichick you trust.”
The coach, he acknowledges, has been the symbol of the team’s transformation from league also-ran to one of the NFL’s flagship franchises. With such a track record, Barclay implies, who has standing to question his decisions?
“It’s the way Belichick plays,” Peter Skarmeas of Danvers says. “It is what it is. He kept (quarterback Tom) Brady in there almost to the end. Most coaches wouldn’t have them in. But Belichick wants to do what he wants to do.”
Skarmeas sees Belichick’s personality playing a role in this. He smiles, “He may want to arouse his critics by doing things like this.”
Whatever the critics say doesn’t seem to bother the coach, however. Skarmeas’ smile grows, remembering all of Sunday’s intercepted passes, recovered fumbles and thrilling touchdowns.
“It was a great game. I just enjoyed the game,” he said.
Cynthia DiChrico of Peabody credits Gronkowski with having a desire to play. “He felt he could play. ... I get why people are questioning it. But sometimes players don’t want to come out.”
When that happens, she adds, the coach “trusts his guys. Just like (Denver Broncos quarterback) Peyton Manning calls his own plays. Belichick lets his players make some decisions.”
Brady is a good example of someone who has to be all but dragged off the field. He played virtually the whole game, taking snaps and throwing passes long after the outcome was decided.
That alarms Luis Garcia of Salem, who sees Brady as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. Moreover, he worries, pointing first to Gronkowski’s injury and then to Brady. “It takes a toll on you being out there,” he says. “You’re in there for a long period of time.”
Dave Black, a Danvers carpenter, levels the hardest hit on the coach’s decision. He complains that Gronkowski “absolutely” should not have been in the game with four minutes to play. “They brought in the backup quarterback.” Why not backup linemen? “It’s a tragic injury for the Patriots’ move forward. They say he’ll be back in four to six weeks, which is barely enough time for the playoffs.”
Gronkowski’s counterpart, tight end Aaron Hernandez, is due back after missing several weeks with a broken ankle, and that gives Black some comfort. “But Gronkowski is the go-to-guy. And he had a great game. He got some key first downs.”
The loss of Gronkowski and his increasingly famous end-zone spikes of the football could mean more playing time for backup tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. Everyone agrees on one thing, however, they can’t pronounce his Polynesian last name.
“I lived in Hawaii for a time,” Black says, “and I still can’t do it.”
In the weeks to come, they might soon learn how.