New England Patriots

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

Ask Dont’a Hightower about the notable absences of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski at Patriots organized team activities, and he’ll tell you it’s business as usual.

It’s undeniably different at Gillette Stadium with this season’s OTAs, with Brian Hoyer and Danny Etling under center and the likes of Dwayne Allen blocking and catching passes. Even Hightower might admit away from the microphones that he wouldn’t exactly be looking forward to the Hoyer-Allen era.

It may not affect Brady, Gronkowski, or the team one iota on the field, though. We’re talking about the greatest quarterback of all time and perhaps the greatest tight end. So if the Pats end up back in the AFC Championship Game with yet another crack at the Super Bowl, then how big of a deal would Brady and Gronk’s absenteeism be in the end?

So it’s hard to totally believe Hightower, who continues to battle back from a torn pectoral that cost him the majority of the 2017 season. But as far as the players who are present in Foxboro, the evidence is showing on the field. The team is doing what it usually does, just with low-level replacements at QB and TE. It, as the saying goes, is what it is.

“As far as work goes, it’s honestly the same, man,” Hightower said. “Twelve’s [Tom Brady] a big part of this team and he means a lot to us in the locker room, but as far as the culture goes, it’s always been next man up. Whether it’s 12, or Gronk [Rob Gronkowski], or me missing, or whenever [Jerod] Mayo went down, or [Vince] Wilfork or whatever, it’s always been next man up. That’s the kind of way Bill [Belichick] has built this culture is whenever the next guy is up they’re just looking for that next chance and opportunity. Guys come in and we work hard every day.

“We’re not going to work harder just because 12’s not here or because Gronk’s not here. Dwayne Allen’s doing a great job. [Will] Tye’s doing a great job. [Troy] Niklas is doing a great job. All of these guys are getting those extra reps and getting better and wanting to contribute to this team. Honestly, it hasn’t changed. I feel like everybody comes in, we’re all doing our workouts, we’re all doing our film and we’re not missing any meeting time. Whenever he gets back, we’ll be glad to have them both, but it’s not going to stop us from working.”

Tom Brady looks at Rob Gronkowski during their game for the New England Patriots against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on September 7, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Tom Brady looks at Rob Gronkowski during their game for the New England Patriots against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on September 7, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

One thing is certain with Hightower’s comments. Brady and Gronk’s absences haven’t exactly thrown the organization into disarray. It’s a major hit to those clamoring to find cracks in the Gillette Stadium foundation. The culture in Foxboro hasn’t exactly started to resemble a dumpster that has been fully engulfed in flames.

But it’s certainly different. Brady and Gronkowski remain absent for reasons of their personal choosing. The QB likely feels that Belichick and his program have begun to cut into his own methods, while Gronkowski is waiting until he agrees to the imminent restructured contract. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s not exactly causing a Flying Elvis-sized sinkhole, either.

If anyone truly does find it to be a big problem that Brady has been absent from OTAs, it’s most certainly Belichick. So maybe the coach doesn’t let No. 12 immediately slide into the first team reps when the QB finally makes his expected appearance at next Tuesday’s mandatory minicamp. Maybe he does other things to tweak Brady. It sure might not be the end of whatever the hell is going on between those two.

Just don’t expect it to affect Hightower, or cause some kind of domino effect where all the dominos are on fire and covered in barbed wire. Don’t expect it to represent some kind of team-wide revolt against the Patriots’ supposed no-fun culture. Talking to you, Lane Johnson, Brandon Brooks, Cassius Marsh. The Patriots are still the Patriots.

They surely need Brady and Gronkowski to win at the level they have over the years. But for everyone else? All they can do is keep putting in their own work. Not sure what any other fear-mongers expect them to do at this point.

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at matthew.dolloff@bbgi.com.