“Football is brutal only from a distance. In the middle of it there’s a calm, a tranquility. The players accept pain. There’s a sense of order even at the end of a running play with bodies strewn everywhere. When the systems interlock, there’s a satisfaction to the game that can’t be duplicated. There’s a harmony.”
Not many written words demonstrate the province of an offensive line more eloquently than that little gem from author and playwright Don DiLillo. And if we believe his tome to be a truism, then the following statement must also be true:
The New England Patriots offensive line is the best in the NFL.
How do we know? How could someone make such a pretentious statement? It’s simple: The operation of an offense begins with the line play – and the more they function in anonymity, the greater the positive effect it has on the offense.
It goes far beyond the simplicity of statistics, and DiLillo captures it. The brutality, the violence, the nastiness – all are a given to be successful in the trenches. But to dominate – to be the best – there must be focus, to drown out all stimulus that detracts from the task at hand, to put aside individuality and to work in tandem within the system – to become one.
There’s a harmony. There’s a calm, a tranquility.
There is no unit in football where the players rely upon such harmonious function, so when the Patriots started training camp the stability of the line was in such question that many regarded the unit as a major weakness on the offense, a weakness that could mean the difference between New England realizing it’s potential and falling flat on it’s collective face.
Matt Light, long time protector of Quarterback Tom Brady’s blind side as the left tackle, retired in the off season. Pro Bowl right guard Brian Waters refused to honor his contract and didn’t show up for camp. Sebastian Vollmer started camp on the PUP list with his chronic back issues, and veteran Center Dan Koppen was coming off surgery on his fractured ankle and perennial Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins was coming off ACL surgery and his status was up in the air after only a few months of recuperation.
Clearly, the Patriots line was in a state of flux as camp began. But these are the Patriots, and when it comes to piecing together a patchwork unit – be it by smoke and mirrors or duct tape and prayer – they have no peer in the business.
But it wasn’t without hard work and some manner of trepidation…and the example set by a tough as nails All Pro left guard.
Just before training camp began, Mankins revealed that not only did he play in the Super Bowl with a torn ACL, but also that he played almost the entire 2011 season with the injury. He couldn’t really pinpoint when the injury actually occurred – or he’s just not saying. He did mention that he wasn’t in constant pain, saying – with a slight, wry smile – that once the ACL tears, you don’t really feel it.
Which may be the craziest thing that I’ve heard any athlete say. But the reality, the true story, is even more crazy than that. Once it was revealed that a post Super Bowl MRI revealed an ACL tear, just about everyone on the planet assumed that it was in the right knee, the one that caused him to miss the final regular season game of the year.
But the injury that caused that missed game was a sprained MCL in his left knee, meaning that Mankins played every snap in the playoffs and the Super Bowl, hobbled by injuries to both knees.
He trivialized the whole issue by saying that he “Put a brace on, taped an aspirin to it ” and went back to work.
The players accept pain.
“That’s the crazy thing, is how much pain tolerance he has,” said quarterback Tom Brady, “to deal with all these different injuries. It’s a physical game, guys get banged up every week, but you always know Logan’s dependability to come out there. He’s going to give you everything he’s got.”
Mankin’s attitude and grit epitomizes toughness more than any other athlete in existence – and makes one curiously certain that the hip and calf injuries that has caused the perennial Pro Bowl selection to miss three games and several practices this season must be excruciatingly painful for him not to play.
Fortunately for New England, they have coachable castoffs – and have Dante Scarnechhia as their offensive line coach.
Donald Thomas, Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly – coachable castoffs all - form an imposing interior wall that has been next to impossible for opposing defenders to penetrate.
The 6′ 3″ 295 pound former sixth round draft pick Thomas has filled in for Mankins admirably – to the point that if you weren’t paying attention, you’d never know the difference. Wendell has continued to be solid at Center after taking over for Koppen early last season – so solid in fact that Head Coach Bill Belichick felt comfortable releasing Koppen in camp. The steady and versatile Connolly has been equally up to the task at right guard, making Waters’ absence a non-issue.
Versatile Nick McDonald backs up all three interior positions, though Thomas will become the primary backup at left guard when Mankins returns – and the way Thomas is holding down the fort, it makes it possible for Mankins to take his time and heal fully.
At Tackles, Sebastian Vollmer and last year’s first round draft pick Nate Solder have been stalwarts, providing both Brady time to throw to his many weapons, and also helping to open huge holes for the Patriots’ stable of fine running backs. Both have impressive size with identical 6′ 8″ 315 pound frames, and both feature great athleticism.
Vollmer is the nastier of the two, but both have taken on elite pass rushers off the edge and handled them impressively. Marcus Cannon, whom has shown marked improvement since being smoked regularly in the preseason, backs up both tackle positions.
And it doesn’t end there. The tight ends have been integral in opening holes for the running game. Brady’s quick decision making and even quicker release makes the line’s job a little easier and the receivers buy into holding blocks downfield, giving a pulling lineman a more clear choice of targets to block on the second level…but those positions will be reviewed shortly.
Scarnechhia has done a masterful job of piecing together this line, and his efforts can not and should not be minimized. But in the end, it’s up to the players to perform in the middle of this organized chaos – and there’s not a unit in the league that does this better than the offensive line of the New England Patriots.