Will the New England Patriots Offensive Line hold them back in 2012?
By: Cian Fahey | Published Monday, August 6, 2012, 3:16 PM | Updated Monday, August 6, 2012, 3:16 PM
There is a saying in the NFL, albeit a potentially outdated one, that football is won in the trenches. In the contemporary league that bears such little resemblance to the history of the game, that saying may have about as much solid ground beneath it as "defenses win championships."
In today's NFL, teams live and die by their quarterback. The signal-caller, ring leader, pocket passer or scrambler, what ever you want to call them, the quarterback's status in today's game is elevated to an unprecedented level. The teams with the Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Bradys of the world prize them more than anything else, while every other team is grasping at every single prospect trying to find their own cornerstone at the position.
Brady has largely been the reason for the Patriots success over the past decade. His limitations were often determined by the amount of talent that surrounded him. In 2007, Brady erased any remaining doubters when he Randy Moss, Wes Welker and a few others broke the single season touchdown record. However in other years, Brady had good, but not great, production with lesser receivers such as Jabarr Gaffney and Reche Caldwell in the lineup.
Gaffney is back on the roster this year, but in a role that he should flourish in. In fact, the Patriots' skill position talent is comparable to that of the the 2007 season. While the style is different, and they don't have a player as dominant as Randy Moss, the Patriots have a greater spread of talent at receiver, tight end and in the backfield.
With simple logic, one would expect the Patriots to have another massive year offensively.
However, the team's issues on the offensive line are at the point where they could prove difficult to overcome. Now that Robert Gallery has retired, Logan Mankins' status for the season is unclear, Dan Koppen coming off a serious injury, Brian Waters not at camp (yet) and Matt Light in front of the television camera, the Patriots' offensive line depth is all but eradicated.
The importance of quality offensive line play has always been a point of emphasis for Bill Belichick. Over the years he has compiled a number of quality combinations and invested high draft picks in pivotal players. One heavy investment is coming in to replace Light this year.
After an impressive rookie season, last year's first round draft pick Nate Solder is stepping into a starting role at left tackle this year. Solder is very talented and most expect him to seamlessly step into his new role, however it is never easy for young unproven players to step into such a critical starting role. If Solder struggles this year, Brady could have a lot of problems as he has been accustomed to trusting Matt Light over the majority of his career.
Even if Solder plays well, there are so many question marks on the interior of the line that it may not matter. The Patriots potentially will start with Dan Connolly, Dan Koppen and Ryan Wendell inside. With Koppen's durability under scrutiny, that line could quickly become Marcus Cannon, Connolly and Wendell. If that does happen, then the Patriots are left with Solder and a Sebastien Vollmer at tackle. Solder has to prove himself while Vollmer has a chronic back issue which is a constant threat to take him off the field. If Cannon has to start, then the team has very little tackle depth.
The Patriots would ideally like to get Brian Waters back involved and speed up Mankins recovery. However, even if Mankins is fit for the start of the season, it will take some time for him to readjust after such a serious knee injury. Waters absence from training camp is very worrisome as he is a player who is just holding onto his career. Waters is 35 years old and his form dipped towards the end of last season. His reliability is not guaranteed at this point.
Because of the type of quarterback Brady is, and the type of offense the Patriots run, the team needs their offensive line to be productive if the offense as a whole is going to be efficient. Brady's protection is very important. Without it it won't matter how many weapons are there to catch his passes.