What a rascal that Matt Light is. The New England Patriots' left tackle organizes a trip to a Bass Pro Shops store for a little bow and arrow target shooting contest among his linemates, part of a feature to be aired before a Monday Night Football game. Of course, the competition is, shall we say, rigged. Light is an experienced bowhunter who says he has bagged plenty of deer, turkey and other birds. Guess who hits the bull's-eye.
To top it off, he sets up Russ Hochstein, the line's supersub. When Hochstein walks over to the target to retrieve his arrow, the other linemen shoot him from behind — not with their pointed shafts, thank God, but with soft pellets from air guns.
Whether it's carrying on like Robin Hood and his Merry Men, racing go-karts, playing dominoes in the locker room or simply going out to dinner, New England's offensive linemen know how to have a good time.
"If you shadowed us and saw what we do on a regular basis, you would see we enjoy each other's company a lot, we have a lot of fun together and we pull a lot of pranks," says Light. "But when it comes down to football, and how we play, and what we have to do to help win games, we're very serious about that."
You might say when they trade in their bows and arrows for helmets and pads, they're nothing but straight shooters.
The offensive line has played a significant role in the pursuit of perfection by the Patriots, who improved to 17-0 with Jan. 12's 31-20 victory over the Jaguars and are one victory from their fourth Super Bowl in seven years. Next up are the San Diego Chargers, whom New England will play in the AFC championship game on Sunday in Foxborough.
The Patriots posted some extraordinary numbers on offense this season. Tom Brady threw an NFL-record 50 touchdown passes, Randy Moss had a league-record 23 scoring receptions, Wes Welker tied for the league lead with 112 catches, the Patriots scored a record 589 points, and — though all the aerial fireworks obscured it — the running game was effective when it had to be.
Behind those numbers, executing their jobs with consistency and efficiency but in virtual anonymity, were the linemen: left tackle Light (16 starts), left guard Logan Mankins (16), center Dan Koppen (15), right guard Stephen Neal (eight), right tackle Nick Kaczur (15) and Hochstein, who because of injuries made seven starts at right guard and one at center. This group may have been overlooked and underappreciated by the average fan, but opposing players and coaches took notice.
Light and Mankins were selected to the Pro Bowl as starters, and Koppen was chosen as a backup.
"They've got one of the best offensive lines in football," says an AFC director of pro scouting. "When you watch them play, I don't see anyone getting any pressure on Brady. He sits back there and can pick you apart."
The Jaguars' plan was to take away the outside receivers and the deep ball — home run threat Moss caught one pass for 14 yards — with a cover 2 scheme that dropped seven, and sometimes eight, defenders into coverage. No matter.
Displaying a surgeon's deft touch, Brady dinked and dunked his way to a 26-of-28 passing performance, setting an NFL record for the highest completion rate (92.9 percent) in a game — postseason or regular season.
"It's easy when you have receivers that are open all the time and an offensive line that never lets anyone touch you," says Brady.
The linemen shield Brady with the tenacity of a father whose daughter is going on her first date.
The Patriots allowed 21 sacks in the regular season, the league's fifth-lowest total. They gave up fewer than 30 sacks for the fourth year in a row; only the Colts and Packers have allowed fewer during the same time period. And according to Stats LLC, this season the linemen collectively were flagged only 12 times for false starts and just seven times (one was turned down) for holding — two penalties that often derail an offensive drive.
We're not talking about the most physically imposing outfit here. Of the starters, Light, Mankins, Neal and Kaczur all are 6-4, and Koppen is 6-2. Kaczur is the heaviest (315 pounds) and Koppen the lightest (296). They almost look like they came out of the same mold, which is somewhat small by NFL standards.
Props need to go to the line's conductor, Dante Scarnecchia. The assistant head coach/offensive line coach is in his 26th NFL season and 24th with New England.
"He's not quite a Minuteman," says Cross.
No, but Scarnecchia, who will turn 60 next month, is the only coach to be a member of all five Patriots Super Bowl teams to date.
"He's kind of like a drill sergeant out there," says Light. "He doesn't put up with any excuses. He doesn't make things up and pretty much tells it like it is.
"He's been doing this for a long time and knows how to get you as best prepared as you can be. You can't really ask a coach to do more than that."
Scarnecchia's guys are athletic, resilient, versatile — Hochstein can play either guard position and center — and intelligent. And all the starters are home-grown. Light (second round, 2001), Mankins (first, '05), Koppen (fifth, '03) and Kaczur (third, '05) were drafted by New England. Koppen, in fact, played at nearby Boston College. Neal, who won two NCAA Division I wrestling titles at Cal State-Bakersfield but did not play football in college, was signed as an undrafted rookie in '01.
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