Thursday, January 24, 2008

What Matters Most: The Patriots Offensive Line - Family Business

Normally, TiT throws up the Five That Matter each week, discussing the important games to be watching for. This is the Super Bowl, however, and in two weeks, everything is going to matter. But because we can't discuss every single part of the game, we're going to spend the next two weeks looking at the characters, settings, and conflicts that matter most to Super Bowl XLII. Today, The Patriots Offensive Line.

One of the ways we measure truly great athletes is how unstoppable they are. Think of what it was like to watch Michael Jordan in his prime, holding the basketball in the fourth quarter of any close game. Watching him miss was more remarkable than watching him make basket upon basket, mostly because it defied the laws of the game you were watching. You knew he was going to score, because that was just the way things were. Michael Jordan making baskets with the game on the line wasn’t an event; it was a natural phenomenon, like breathing or sleeping. It was, despite the best efforts of any opponent on any night, unstoppable.

There’s a similar air around the Patriots offensive line. I remember watching the Jets play a playoff game against the Pats last year, and it got to the point where every time the Pats offense lined up, I prayed for a dropped pass. I knew that no matter what, no matter how many defenders the Jets threw at him, and no matter where the blitz was coming from, not a single defender would touch Tom Brady, because they’d get no further than the five men lined up in front of him. The story has been pretty much the same this year for the rest of the league. The unit allowed only 21 sacks against Tom Brady, a four way tie for 13th best among starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Oh, and while they did that, they also bought him time to have the highest quarterback rating in the league, the highest passing yards, and an all time NFL season TD record. Put simply, this line doesn’t just protect its quarterback from sacks; it makes plays work the way that they’re designed, moving downfield quickly and scoring at an alarming rate.

That doesn’t happen without pride, without a sense of purpose that separates great players from great talents. In the case of this offensive line, that talent seems to be one built on tradition. Consider this: every starter on the Patriots offensive line has been a Patriot for the entirety of their NFL career. Three of them have seen multiple Super Bowls. Outside of Tom Brady and Laurence Maroney, nobody on this offense can claim either of those things. Throughout the season, throughout every season, one of the constants has come to be that the Patriots line will protect Tom Brady. Guards Logan Mankins and Stephen Neal punish interior defenders, routinely advancing the point of contact beyond the original line of scrimmage and buying the extra yard or two that turn fourth and shorts into first downs. Tackles Nick Kaczur and Matt Light turn complex blitzes into simple equations: Defender divided by large man equals deep downfield pass. At the middle of the line, Dan Koppen coordinates the show with an ease that shows; this group never looks as though they’ve been caught off guard, the sign of a great center. The end result is a group of relatively nameless individuals (other offensive linemen have garnered significantly more accolades and media attention than any of these guys) that move as perhaps the most indomitable entity in the entire league.

It is this entity that will be at the center of what happens when all is said and done in Phoenix. A lot can and probably will happen that nobody could have considered, occurrences that will somehow change the game in a way that nobody could have foreseen; however, if one thing happens, then everything else becomes a sideshow to the inevitable: If this line remains as unassailable as it’s looked when the Pats have dominated, the Patriots will be champions again. As such, the line holds a destiny swaying role that no other player, coach, or unit on the field holds. Knowing that they’re facing perhaps the most difficult matchup of their season for the second time, against a line that is dedicated to disrupting the very calm that the Pats linemen create, the peace that Tom Brady thrives on, you can bet that this line will be doing everything it can to hold off the onslaught of Giants blitzes pass rush schemes. Yet they won’t be reaching into some bag of tricks to do so, as one might assume when facing an opponent of this caliber again. Instead, they’ll be reaching back to the same tradition that has formed, hardened, and defined this faceless beast for years.

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