By Tim Graham
Critics are blistering New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and many football fans are savoring the schadenfreude over tight end Rob Gronkowski's broken forearm.
Belichick has been condemned for sending the former Williamsville North star onto the field late in the fourth quarter to block for an extra point, the Patriots' 59th point of the game, in a blowout victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
Gronkowski, lined up as the right wingback, got hurt while trying to block Colts defensive back Sergio Brown.
Those who despise Belichick's proclivity for running up the score viewed Gronkowski's injury as justified comeuppance.
Should a player of Gronkowski's stature be on the field when his team is ahead by five touchdowns in the fourth quarter? Should a player of Gronkowski's stature be on the field-goal unit at all?
Two men with deep football knowledge told me Tuesday the questions are absurd.
"I'm going to stick up for Bill Belichick on that," said Bill Parcells, who won two Super Bowls as head coach of the New York Giants with Belichick as defensive coordinator. "I know what Gronkowski is doing in that game. I had Lawrence Taylor in the game every time at the same position.
"Fans and media assign the degree of importance that they wish to assign. A coach assigns the degree of importance."
And if anybody knows how special teams are supposed to be drawn up, then it would be former Buffalo Bills star Steve Tasker. He also supported the way Gronkowski was used.
"You don't substitute for a guy on extra point," Tasker said. "No question, it's unfortunate he got hurt. But the reaction has been ridiculous.
"Even if he was benched and they had Tom Brady out and Wes Welker on the sideline and they had decided to pack it in and furl the sails, you don't have backups for the extra point. All of those No. 1 offensive linemen have to go back out there and protect."
Tasker and Parcells both uttered the same comment verbatim: "That's just the way it is."
But why is it that way?
A passionate Tasker explained:
"You got 53 guys [46 active for a game]. The special-teams coordinator has to get a kickoff team ready. That's 11 guys. He's got to get a kickoff return team. That's 11 different-type guys. He's got to get a punt team ready and a punt-return team ready. That's 44 different kinds of spots he's got to fill.
"On two units, they're blocking and protecting on a return. On the other two, they're chasing a guy. Those are different athletes. Also, you got field goal, which is protection -- offensive linemen, wingbacks, tight ends and a holder and a kicker. Then you got field-goal defense, which is your No. 1 defense or any tall guys who have a knack for it on the interior.
"So you're looking at 66 different positions your special-teams coordinator has to get on the field. You're going to have to use the best guys available. You've got starters sprinkled in there, and you try to get maybe 10 snaps a game out of those guys. You need to give a break to the other 44 guys who are trying to run 60 yards and tackle or drop back 30 yards and block."
How much difference would it make if the Patriots used backup tight ends Visanthe Shiancoe or Michael Hoomanawanui instead of Gronkowski?
Parcells said: "Let's say you put that guy in there, and he doesn't do his job. And let's say a rusher comes free, and your kicker kicks, and the rusher hits the kicker in the knee, and he's out for the year. How's that?"
Tasker said: "You want consistency in your performance. You don't want to have a 19-yard field goal to win it blocked because a guy is out there taking up space and can't stop the rusher. You've got to have quality guys out there, and you can't be shifting them in and out."
But the best response I've heard so far came from Belichick on Monday.
"Football players play football," Belichick told Boston radio station WEEI. "You tell me which guys are going to get hurt and I'll get them out of there."