When he was a coach (and a pretty good one at that), John Madden used to debate with another HC over where you start in building a team: Defensive backs or offensive line?
Naturally, I come out with Madden in saying it's the guys in the trenches. Very little print is devoted to the Pat's o-line concerns relative to the other stories out there. IMO, though, all those other issues (with the possible exception of Asante's replacement) are gravy. Unless this line can coalesce with a new roster over the next month to six weeks, it's going to be a very rocky season for the hometown team.
The big game was lost in the trenches; the Pats gave Brady no time and Maroney no lanes. True, it took Daniels waaaay too long to change his play-calling to quick-outs, screens, play-action and tosses to slow the upfield push. But that doesn't excuse the performance by what, until that game, was one of the most highly regarded units in the game. As frustrated as I was with the play-calling, I was more dismayed by the pass-blocking performance of the mountain men. This was a clear case of strength-on-strength, one which the Pats lost when it counted most.
Don't think those boys don't realize it, and don't for a second imagine that it hasn't kept them up at night this spring. Yet, with Kaczur's off-field issues, Neal's injury and uncertain replacements like Wes Britt fitting in, the fluidity and cohesion of this team-within-the-team has to be in question. And no one is doing a decent job of reporting or analysis on it.
On a personal note, I feel like the sporting press has been missing out on a great story here. For, like, the last 50 years or so. Offensive line play is a one-act drama played 30 times a game. The quarterback needs to know all, and an unfolding pass, read on the run, is a complex instant analysis. But the receivers don't need to make a unison read—just do your part. The o-line, on the other hand, must make a unison read and unison execution every time the ball is snapped. These guys have to be mentally tighter than any other unit on the field.
At the end of the day, if they fail, even the best skill-players can't bail the team out. Brady looks positively mortal when forced to scramble for time. But if the line is great, even an average skill-player can look great. Just look at the parade of running backs Denver had enjoyed. The real reign there has been an (until lately) superb line. Steve Hutchinson and Walter Jones made Shaun Alexander an all-star in Seattle. Seattle failed to protect Hutchinson in free agency; Hutchinson went to Minnesota, teamed up with Matt Birk and Bryant McKinnie, and did the same thing for (an admittedly greater) Adrian "Purple Jesus" Peterson. Everyone wondered, "Geez, what happened to Alexander?" Nothing! He was the same mincing, hit-shy guy he always was; it's just that Seattle's front office blew up his line. They dropped arguably their best run-blocker and couldn't plug the hole.
So the guys I'll be paying the most attention to this season are the front 5.
The left side looks as good as it ever has, but don't take that as unleavened praise. While Logan Mankins is becoming one of the game's premier guards, Matt Light, though better than average, wins his individual battles through craft more than outright athleticism and strength. Don't get me wrong—I'm a big fan. He's dogged and a tenacious pass-blocker. He does have trouble with some speed rushers, and has particular trouble with talented end/LB combos when both players combine speed with strength. It strikes me that I've just described the limits of a pretty damned good football player. One of the best at his position now playing. Young Logan, however, may become one of The Greats if he continues to improve.
Dan Koppen, though initially regarded as undersized, is beginning to enter Jeff Saturday and, perhaps eventually, Dermontti Dawson territory. He may never be as physically dominating as Dawson was, but he has the tools to emulate Saturday, who is practically an identically-sized center. All that separates them in my mind is tenure. For you aficionados of line play out there, try to get a glimpse of the way Koppen uses his hands. Folks, this is judo in a phone booth--especially when going up against NT's and DT's that outweigh him by large margins. Koppen neutralizes these guys by gaining what coaches call "inside control." Predicate to that is a split-second combat as helmets clash. The winner of that split-second usually wins the play, and Koppen wins that fight most of the time.
On the right, all is chaos. In truth, the Patriots haven't had a very solid or reliable guard-tackle tandem on this side of the line in recent memory. Last year was about as good as I can remember, as Kaczur began to come into his own at right tackle late in the year—a role that 's been a bit of a revolving door for the Patriots. Ryan O'Callaghan would have been my pick for the inside edge on this slot, as the Pats took a long look at him in last year's camp, and he saw significant playing time (for a back up) last year. Yet it's been fellow third year man-mountain Wesley Brittt who's been seeing the majority of 1st team snaps in Kaczur's absence.
Both Britt and O'Callaghan are huge prototypical run-blocking types. But the fact is, center and left have been the Patriots most successful running lanes. That means that right tackle has been notably weaker in the one area the position is expected to be stronger (at least in front of a right-handed Brady).
The Patriots have covered for this in the past largely through the service of excellent run-blocking tight-ends. My guess (oh OK, my fervent hope) is that, with none of our TE's showing much run-blocking prowess, this deficiency will be addressed through an "I" or "Pro" formation with a blocking back. Evans, Jordan and Eckel can all serve this role—in that order. (When he's treated to the luxury of a lead back, Laurence Maroney is f*cking scary. I think it's because he ran out of the "I" in college.) The Patriots' offense as a whole would, I think, benefit from a beefed-up running attack. It seems the staff agrees, signing LaMont. But all the cut-backs Maroney makes to the left rather than the right indicates that our right tackles -- in spite of their prodigious size -- haven't been getting much movement off the line.
It also does not speak very highly of our guard play over there. Neal is a favorite of writers, given his unorthodox entry into the NFL. (See him outlast comic-book proportioned and really classy guy Brock Lesner for his fourth consecutive NCAA wrestling title here.) He was also becoming a very solid guard, with his play toward the end of the '06 season putting him in the upper ranks of the league.
2007 was a hard year for Neal, though. His battle with shoulder injuries led his teammates to honor him with the Ed Block Courage Award. Had he not been injured early in the game, the Super Bowl may have turned out very differently. Lacking the brutal strength of Mankins, Neal is a lot like Koppen: crafty, heady, tenacious. But he's still on the PUP list.
Filling in for Neal now, as in the Super Bowl, is perennial utility man Russ Hochstein. Russ, Russ, Russ. What are we going to do with you? Famously called out by Warren Sapp before the SB with the Panthers, Hochstein had a superb day. He's been an able replacement up and down the line for the last few years. But when Neal went down suddenly in the 'Bowl, Hochstein turned in a turnstile performance against Justin Tuck and Co. To be fair, he had a lot of company, but the wall was crumbling up the middle—a disaster for pass or run. Yet, he may be the guy come the start of the season. Which Russ will we get?
Billy Yates, whose life I do not envy, is a back-up here. Yates' career resume looks like a yo-yo: signed, released, signed, released, active, inactive, practice squad, active, released, signed…. Ugh. It's enough to drive a man to drinking—which is what I'll be doing if this guy becomes a starter, waka waka waka.
Oh, who am I kidding? I'm drinking anyway.
Finally, in addition to a couple of veteran free agents, we also have a youngster in camp. Ryan Wendell, a former Fresno State Bulldog under coach Pat Hill, has been signed. He's a smart cat, and I like Fresno's playing style—they seem to develop tough, high-character guys. At only (!) 275 pounds, Wendell's a little slight for the NFL right now; most likely he's a project for Dante.
And I'll conclude with Dante, in whom all hope resides. In his 26 year long NFL coaching career, Dante Scarnecchia has earned a reputation as one of the finest coaches of the lineman's art in the game. Over the past several seasons, he has molded a young group of talent into one of the more envied units in the league.
The importance of position coaches is often overlooked. Belichick can never be accused of blindness here: witness the hiring of Dom Capers, a man who has forgotten more about defense than most coaches ever learn. For an example of how important this is on the line, check out the job Joe Philbin has done in Green Bay since coming on board. In four years, he brought them from sieve status to reliable redoubt--Aaron Rodgers should thank him.
In spite of my skepticism regarding the right side of the Patriots' line, I have no doubt that Dante's the man. I had an old coach once who used to say, "You can't mold sh*t." Thankfully, Dante has more to work with than that—a good deal more.
One thing he has going for him is the history his players have with each other. Holding the line constant can make up for a lot—rare is the Hutchinson type of player who can meld quickly into an established group (and if you look at the Vikings pass-pro, you'll see they still have a long way to go). This unit has been a unit for a long time in terms of the free-agent era. More than anything else, that is its greatest strength. Superior communication and mutual anticipation can go a long way. It can turn average players into an above-average unit, and an already good front five into one of the greatest in the game.
All in all, this is still one of the stouter offensive lines in the NFL. It isn't ironclad by any means, however, and this camp will be a very important time for them. Unit cohesion is going to have to extend further past the starting 5 than in the last two years in order for the Pats to have a legitimate shot at bringing home another trophy—and I don't mean the one named after Lamar Hunt.