FOXBORO — Tom Brady had never really considered it before. He stood in front of his locker on Thursday, and he glanced downward. He tried to remember.
“The concussion,” he said. “The Cleveland game and the ACL. The Denver game, too. Remember in the snow? Yeah, he missed the Eagles game.”
There was also the play against the Seahawks in 2016. The one when Earl Thomas turned himself into a cruise missile in shoulder pads.
“Four times,” Brady acknowledged. “You’re right, bro. You’re onto something.”
The topic was Brady’s most valuable teammate, Rob Gronkowski, and the seam routes that the All-Pro tight end has been asked to run over the years.
That particular route has led to some of Gronkowski’s most stupefying athletic feats. It led to three catches for 83 yards against the Texans in Week 1.
It has also been devastating to Gronkowski’s health.
There was the concussion in the AFC title game against the Jaguars last season. There was the torn ACL Gronkowski suffered in 2013 against the Browns. There was the hit that looked catastrophic in 2015 — in Denver, in the snow — that had Gronkowski writhing on the ground in pain and kept him out one week. There was the ferocious hit by Thomas in 2016 that may have contributed to Gronkowski needing season-ending back surgery weeks later.
Gronkowski’s presence is perhaps as critical now to the Patriots offense as it has ever been. The team’s wideout depth is tenuous. Its running backs are banged up. He is their most dependable receiver and truest deep threat on a team that needs both.
“He’s a big part of what we do,” Brady told WEEI last week, “and we all have to match his greatness — all of us — in order to be a great offense.”
Gronkowski running through the seam is one way the Patriots can impact the back ends of opposing defenses on a week-to-week basis. But given the dangers inherent to that route, it is the ultimate risk-reward play.
And it begs a question that is just about impossible to answer: How can you keep your most valuable asset out of harm’s way when you have to put your most valuable asset in harm’s way in order to succeed?
“It’s football,” Gronkowski said when asked if there’s ever been any trepidation running that particular route. “It could happen at any time, any route. If you got that thought in your head, it’s not going to help you out when running the route.”
But Brady acknowledged that the safety of his teammates, including his future Hall of Fame teammate, is in the back of his mind on game days. And there’s some math going on — “Always, you’re just calculating,” Brady said — in order for the quarterback to make decisions that are in the best interests of the players with whom he shares a huddle.
“I mean, anyone can get hurt on any play,” Brady said. “It’s not like there’s a safety zone. Know what I mean? You’re trying to avoid those the best you can. Any time you’re running full speed up the field, the post safety is breaking down on you, you try to avoid those the best you can. You’re just trying to gauge how far they are.
“Honestly, most plays are like that. You’re always looking and seeing distances. You don’t really want to get anyone hit, or throw it where they can’t protect themselves. Yeah. There’s no doubt, that play . . . There’s other plays like that . . . You just gotta do your best to try to eliminate them.”
‘YOU JUST GOTTA GO WHERE THEY’RE NOT’
That play. What is it, exactly?
A seam route can take on a different look from one play to the next based on the coverage or the location on the field. But, generally, it involves a tight end or slot receiver (or a tight end playing slot receiver) running vertically up the field in an attempt to find an open area between defenders in the secondary.
In that soft spot, or “seam,” the target will either find a pass floated his way, or he’ll draw coverage in order to open up room for a teammate. This summer, in our “Signature Plays” series, we highlighted a seam route run by Gronkowski in Super Bowl LII that opened up space for Chris Hogan to break free for a long touchdown.
Against defenses that use single-high safeties — or post safeties, as Brady calls them — it makes sense to throw seam routes because it forces that deep defender to make a choice.
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Does the safety take the seam or help on another deep route run on the outside? If there are two seams run from opposite sides of the offensive formation, which one does the safety settle on?
When an offense can get two players into an area where that single-high safety is threatened, that’s a win. He can only go with one.
“I think you have to make them defend everything,” Brady said. “I don’t think you can let them off the hook. I always think, if they’re deep you throw it short. If they’re short, throw it deep. If they’re inside, outside. Outside, inside.
“If they’re playing the pass, you gotta run it. If they’re rushing too hard, you gotta screen ’em. You just gotta go where they’re not.”
The Jaguars defense likes to run post-safety coverages, and so despite how last year’s AFC Championship Game ended for Gronkowski, don’t be surprised to see him up the seam again on Sunday.
The reason that route feels so perilous is because the ball is in the air long enough that safeties — even the ones who don’t start out thinking seam — can build up a head of steam and dish out jarring hits to reachable targets in the middle of the field.
Not that Gronkowski thinks of seam routes in those terms.
“It’s like any other route, you just gotta get open,” Gronkowski said. “You never know when you’re going to get the ball. I mean, when a seam route’s called it’s literally the same mindset of any route. You gotta get open. No matter what. You gotta make a play if the ball gets thrown to you.”
‘GO IN THERE WITH NO FEAR’
He may approach each route similarly, but Gronkowski readily admitted that when it comes to running up the seam, his final destination — the deep middle — is oftentimes a high-impact collision zone.
“Oh, yes. Definitely. You gotta be aware of that,” he said. “You gotta protect yourself at times, when you can. Catch the ball and go down.
“But at the same time you gotta go in there with no fear. You gotta go in there with the mentality that you’re going to get the ball, make a play. There’s times when you try to keep going. There’s times where you know the journey’s going to end and you just try to get down.”
Over time, Gronkowski believes he’s improved when it comes to his understanding of the journey’s end. And he believes the alterations he’s made to his training regimen in recent years — he’s a TB12 Sports Therapy Center client — could potentially make him better equipped to sustain big hits.
But that won’t stop Patriots fans from holding their collective breath every time Gronkowski’s streaking down the middle to track down a throw. Not only do they know his injury history, but there are times when they can see that post safety — a single-high safety — making a bee line for Gronkowski as the ball is in the air.
Those throws can be cringe-inducing even for former players.
On Monday Night Patriots last week, Rob Ninkovich agreed that the seam could be considered a “danger zone” for Gronkowski. On Quick Slants the Podcast, our Tom E. Curran asked Jerod Mayo what he thinks when he sees Gronkowski in the seam.
“Please don’t tackle him low,” Mayo said. “Every time we see that, I just want Gronk to survive. It’s such an [effective] play. [But] can we get someone else to do that? I think I’ll come out of retirement and just run down the seam . . . It’s scary.”
‘YOU’VE GOT TO PICK YOUR SPOTS’
Working the seam can be risky, Josh McDaniels explained on a conference call Tuesday.
“Certainly, if there’s players back there in and around that area,” McDaniels said, “it makes those throws more difficult to attempt. And there’s ways to try to – if you can try to create a little bit of space, then that’s something that you can attempt to do as well.
“The other day [against the Texans], we found a little bit of space there in the middle, partly because of what they did defensively . . . Last year, I believe in the Jacksonville game, in the AFC Championship Game, we actually had one and I believe it was [Barry] Church made a good break on the ball and hit Rob pretty good.”
But the trust McDaniels has in Brady to make the right decision, to keep teammates out of bad situations, gives McDaniels the leeway to call a play and not worry about whether his quarterback is going to force something harmful.
“You know, you’ve got to pick your spots, but I think more importantly, you’ve got to just read it out,” McDaniels said. “If you call them a number of times in the game, then the quarterback – his responsibility is to try to get the ball to the right spot. Certainly if those areas of the field are defended with a lot of bodies, then we’d love to go somewhere else with it, and Tommy does a great job of that.”
‘SOME THINGS ARE GOING TO HURT’
There’s a flip side to the seam route, of course. There are the safeties tasked with doing what they’re instructed to do: Get a jump on the pass, separate the receiver from the football, end the play.
If it’s Gronkowski running down the seam, those instructions become more difficult. He has about 50 pounds or so on many who may find themselves tracking Brady, and the reason some of those collisions are as violent as they are is because if they aren’t executed at full speed then the smaller guy is losing. Or at least getting up slowly when it’s over.
“I learned early in this league,” Devin McCourty said. “I remember I hit [Michael Hoomanawanui] when he was on the Rams, and I tried to come and hit him blindside and he didn’t move. So I’m probably going through the thighs and trying to take a guy out that way and try to see if you can detach him from the football.”
“I mean, if you’re bracing yourself playing defense, you shouldn’t play defense, one,” Patrick Chung said. “And no, you just go make the play. Your instincts are going to kick in, just make the play. We don’t make the calls. Football’s a contact sport so some things are going to hurt. But you have to go out there and make the play and see what happens after that.”
‘WE’RE ALL GONNA GET HIT’
In some ways, Brady is Gronkowski’s best protection. Better than any padding. Better than any preventative training. Better than even the wisdom to understand the journey is over.
There’s only so much the receiver can do if he’s selling out to make a catch.
It’s up to Brady to do the calculations before he lets one rip up the middle of the field. Can he get it there before the safety arrives? And if it’s going to be close, can he put the football on Gronkowski’s back shoulder to pull Gronkowski’s momentum away from the impending sternum (or worse) shot?
That’s where having arguably the game’s smartest and most accurate quarterback helps Gronkowski. For all the shots he’s taken, Brady has likely saved him from many others by leading Gronkowski away from contact or being wise enough not to throw it to him at all.
“That’s where our quarterbacks do an amazing job of reading, looking safeties off, doing the right thing,” said second-year tight end Jacob Hollister. “They usually take really good care of us so they’re not going to put us in a bad position . . . You see a lot of those throws, especially with Gronk. [Brady’s] protecting him.”
“You just don’t want to get anyone hit,” Brady said. “If they do, it’s not like you can avoid getting hit in football. But you don’t want it where the guy’s got a clean, you know, or the receiver doesn’t have a chance to protect himself.”
So can you keep your most valuable asset out of harm’s way when you have to put him in harm’s way to succeed?
Nope. Not completely. But you can try.
“Every play someone is running into someone,” Brady said. “It’s with everyone. It’s just that particular play . . . It’s a threat to run it, but I guess I don’t think about it that much.
“The quarterback’s got a chance to get hit when you drop back. The running back’s got a chance to get hit. We’re all gonna get it. We just gotta do our best to protect each other.”
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