Greetings Patriots fans, from your designated trenchman. Seems I've assumed default oversight of the pig-pen, where the big boys battle, so in an effort to continue to uphold that role I bring you the latest in the ongoing saga of the Patriots' offensive line.
After bringing him in for a workout yesterday, the Patriots have signed Massachusetts homeboy Mike Flynn to a one year contract. The former standout at Springfield's Cathedral High and the University of Maine has played in the big leagues for 10 seasons, all of them for the Baltimore Ravens.
Flynn is the latest signing in a bewildering array of free-agents old and new that the Pioli/Belichick team has brought in to shore up the front wall. Spurred by a merry-go-round of injuries all along the front five, the Patriots now enter officially desperate waters. To bring in an o-lineman this late in camp is beyond cause for concern--it's indicative of a serious issue. That issue is depth.
More on Flynn and the rest of the fat guys over the jump.
[Reprising some of my earlier comments] In the opinion of this Pats-watcher, Mike Flynn is a better class of re-tread than we've had here lately. For the last ten seasons, Flynn has been the rock at the center of the Ravens' offensive line. Signed as a non-draftee free agent in 1997, Flynn was a four-year letter winner at Maine and a team captain. He battled his way onto the Ravens' roster and was a starter at guard during their run to the '01 Super Bowl. Later moved to center, he started 115 of 134 games.
The rock began to crumble a little bit over the last two seasons. He was hurt early in 2007 and although he did return to the field he wasn't quite the same. Blamed by many Ravens fans for their offensive line woes over the last part of his career, Brian Billick and Ozzie Newsome finally caved to Flynn's age and his salary-cap hit, releasing him this winter. Said Newsome:
There are sad, tough days in this business, and this is one of those...Mike Flynn represents everything good about the Ravens. [JHR: I know, I know. Just bear with me.] He fought his way into the NFL, fought his way into our starting lineup and he fought to help us win,'' Newsome said. ``When we list the true Ravens in our history - and there is a Ravens way that includes respect for your teammates and opponents, toughness, intelligence on the field, passion for the game - Mike will be high on that list.
Forgetting for the moment everything you instinctively feel about the Baltimore Stabbers, every clubhouse is a family--or it should be. Dysfunctional locker-rooms often can be picked out by the team's game-time performance. Flynn was a leader of the o-line there, but not above (or below) locker-room b.s. During last year--his tenth with the team--one of Flynn's teammates made up a "Mike Flynn Farewell Tour" t-shirt with the team's schedule printed on the back. The not-so-subtle swipe at the veteran was not exactly out-of-the-blue: "[W]hen you dish it out, you've got to expect some punishment back," said Flynn.
It's one thing to be a character, but it's much more important to have character. As near as I can tell, Flynn has that. In addition to Newsome's encomiums, Flynn made a strong impression at Maine:
In his first training camp with the Ravens in 1997, Flynn was an undrafted free agent offensive lineman from Maine who labored under a hot Westminster sun as a quiet, anonymous rookie just trying to make the team.
One day, in the middle of that set of circumstances, Flynn looked over toward the fan barrier and saw a member of the Maine coaching staff who had traveled south to see him practice. It may have seemed like a rather innocuous moment. However, it was proof that not only was Flynn the kind of player that inspired belief in those around him, he was willing to work to reinforce that belief.
He was elected to the University's sports Hall of Fame in 2007.
A final note of optimism: When he arrived in Baltimore, Flynn's position coach was Kirk Ferentz, now HC at the University of Iowa. Ferentz, a holdover from the franchise's years in Cleveland, coached Flynn through 1998 when he left for the Hawkeye job. In Cleveland he was offensive line coach under Bill Belichick. It's a strong bet that Belichick and Pioli consulted with Ferentz for some inside perspective and got a firm "thumbs up" before signing Flynn. [Note: It was erroneously reported by myself and others that Flynn played under Ferentz at Maine as well. The timing for that scenario isn't right. While Flynn may have been recruited by Ferentz, Kirk was gone by the time Flynn showed up in Orono where he is considered a member of Coach Mike Cosgrove's first recruiting class.]
But can he still play? Certainly that's the $64,000 question--though I've no idea what kind of a contract Flynn signed. He was released in the winter. I don't know what kind of shape he's kept in, but I do know that he was thinking about moving on. It was only in June that the Baltimore Sun reported Flynn was almost 100% sure he'd finished with football and was trying to transition into broadcasting.
Dan Connolly botched a shot-gun snap against the Bucs, and Russ Hochstein got banged up against the Ravens. Billy Yates has a pinched nerve in his neck. Barry Stokes and Anthony Clement are on IR, lost for the season. Ryan O'Callaghan isn't practicing regularly. That's almost all of your depth nicked up--unless you count these kids still in diapers: Ryan Wendell, Jimmy Martin and just-signed Stephen Sene. John Welbourne, signed only last week, is a likely starter tomorrow. Yikes.
Neal is still a PUPpy. Matt Light is nowhere to be found. (Though BB insists they're both "getting better every day." Whatever the hell that means.) Nick Kaczur, just a few weeks off the PUP list himself, is playing out of position.
It should by now be obvious that things are not where they should be, particularly at the interior of the line. We're lucky that (knock wood) Koppen and Mankins remain healthy. There's at least a good core there for Dante to anchor the movable parts to.
If I had to guess (and I do), I would say that you won't see much of Brady tomorrow, even if he is fully healthy. The offensive line is, for all intents and purposes, a brand new unit every day. I've said some before about relying on versatility as a substitute for depth. It has succeeded for the Patriots in the past, particularly in the linebacking corps and the secondary. We made it to the 'Bowl last year without Rosey Colvin in part because everyone back there could be moved mostly interchangeably (though you can argue that we really missed him on Black Sunday). We added Troy Brown as a slot-corner in the past with limited success--he even got a pick back there. Hochstein has at times filled in admirably for Koppen and Neal. In spite of my panning him for that day, Belichick continues to defend Russ's performance in the Super Bowl. But the fact is that having the same five guys work together consistently is the only way to develop reliably great line-play.
1-15 Rod Rust
So where does that leave us? It leaves me with my fingers crossed. This will be a winning season. But if it is to be a success by the New Patriot Standards (and thank god for that), it will be because the offensive line plays itself into form over the first 5-6 weeks and the defense holds the fort in the meantime.
After the display our defensive front 5 put on in Tampa, that is not assured--at least to this fan's eyes. But I remind myself, and you, gentle reader, that this is not the team we grew up with.
So here's to hope. Go Pats!